University of Michigan associate professor Nicholas Kotov believes that one day, the cells in those honeycombs can be used to grow spare parts for our bodies, or even an entire artificial immune system in a bottle.
An immune system in a bottle would allow faster and easier production of a flu vaccine, thus preventing another shortage, he said. In addition, the immune system in a bottle will give scientists clues how to design vaccines that activate an immune response to the unchanging part of a flu virus, making yearly vaccinations, quite possibly, unnecessary, Kotov said.
In the paper "Inverted Colloidal Crystals as 3-D Cell Scaffolds," published last month in the journal Langmuir, Kotov's lab in the chemical engineering department and other collaborators introduced a way to build those cell-incubating honeycombs---called scaffolds---so that even though the cells occupy different compartments in the honeycomb, they share the same conditions, just as they would share the same conditions if growing in the body.
Collaborators on the paper include researchers from Oklahoma State University, University of Texas Medial Branch and Stillwater Oklahoma-based Nomadics Inc. Kotov has appointments in the biomedical, materials science and chemical engineering departments.
The research is so important that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has funded a consortium of research institutions for $10 million to grow the immune system in a bottle.
Scientists can study the artificial immune system to see how it reacts to biological hazards and their countermeasures, and use the data to make more effective countermeasures, said Jan Walker, DARPA spokesman.