Cutting Edge
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Cutting Edge

Cutting Edge

Dr Gregory Farrelly FAITH MAGAZINE January-February 2014

Science and Religion News

Printing Cells

I am writing most of this article on the feast of Christ the King, at which we hear the wonderful reading from the letter of St Paul to the Colossians (Col 1:12-20):

“…in him were created all things in heaven and on earth… . Before anything was created, he existed,
and he holds all things in unity.”

The Faith movement’s perspective concerning the unity of created matter as one divine work across time and space offers a real insight into the purpose and purposiveness of all material being – ordered, controlled, directed and interrelated in a mathematical, physical, chemical, biological and, by definition, metaphysical manner. In this theology, the “how” of science really does inform the “why” concerning the unity of the universe, the Person of Christ the Creator, and human existence. This unity is evident as the divide between the “hard sciences” and biology/medicine is being eroded.

The September issue of Physics World contains an account of the current developments in the three-dimensional printing of biological cells to produce human or animal organs. This type of printing is already quite advanced: it involves building up a physical (3D) object by printing layer by layer, spraying liquid substances that can then solidify. Interestingly, Charles Vacanti (Journal of Cellular and Molecular Medicine, vol 10, pp569-76) sees the first reference to this whole idea mentioned in Gen 2:21-22, referring to Adam: “…and while he [Adam] slept, [God] took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh.”

Waiting lists for organ transplants always seem to grow and, even when transplanted, organs from another person’s body may be rejected, so there is a real need for alternatives to traditional transplants. Suwan Jayasinghe, leader of the biophysics group at University College London, is involved in trying to create synthetic biological tissues. There are three essential ingredients:

  1. a supporting structure, similar to the extracellular matrix;
  2. the various living cells required for the organ;
  3. a network of blood vessels to deliver oxygen and nutrients to the cells and thus keep them alive.

In 1999, Anthony Atala grew a colony of bladder cells, taken from a biopsy and seeded on a “scaffold” in the shape of a patient’s own bladder. The scaffold was biodegradable within the patient’s body. Once the cells had reproduced and grown, the synthetic bladder was transplanted and blood vessels began to grow. Seven years after transplantation, all the recipients of these bladders were found to be healthy. There are, however, problems with using “rinsed” organs from donors: residual DNA from a donor’s scaffolding structure may contaminate the patient’s cells. The advantage of making an artificial scaffold is therefore clear. But providing a scaffold for complex internal organs is challenging. This is where 3D printing may offer a solution; it enables a layer-by-layer addition of therequired cells and their requisite supporting biochemical and physical structures.

Using the idea of the inkjet printer, in which small nozzles shoot ink at the required area, the idea of inkjet-printed biological cells was considered. Each type of cell would be injected where and when required, layer by layer. However, one has to ensure that the cells remain alive, especially if passed through an inkjet needle, involving considerable shear forces and thermal stresses. To ensure survival of the cells, the blood vessels must be manufactured by the printing process. One possibility is by having several “arms” for printing different cells simultaneously.

A team in Pennsylvania has created liver tissue by first 3D-printing a sugar solution scaffold, which then hardened and was “printed” with vascular blood cells and an extracellular matrix. The sugar was then dissolved, leaving an empty network populated with blood vessels (Nature Materials, vol 11, pp768–774).


In the battle for contracts to supply electricity, Thomas Edison’s direct current (DC) system lost out to Nikola Tesla’s alternating current (AC) system. A key consideration was that very high voltages (hundreds of kilovolts) are required to reduce transmission losses in the cables that distribute the electricity; but these voltages are totally unsuitable for domestic use, and so have to be “stepped down”. This was achieved by the transformer, an electrical device that only works with AC. However, since AC is continually oscillating, electromagnetic and capacitive energy losses occur – which does not happen with DC.

Modern technology (involving integrated circuits and electronic programming) can now efficiently convert high-voltage direct current (HVDC) to AC, making the transmission of electricity using HVDC power lines attractive. Furthermore, HVDC is already used successfully in applications such as the transmission of power from solar power stations and wind generators, sources of power that are set to increase in extent.

An HVDC “grid” would enable areas in which there is a near-constant supply of wind power during the summer, for example in Morocco and Egypt, to be added to existing wind power from areas in Scotland and northern England, where wind power decreases during the summer. This offers some hope for future generations who will have to consider carefully the means by which energy is supplied as fossil fuels begin to diminish but the demands for energy increase. Even electricity has its own “ecosystem”.

Faith Magazine