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Spotlight: Blood Vessels on a Chip for Dental Research and More

Colored micrograph shows blue and green blobs on black background.
Credit: S. Alimperti/NIST

Here’s something to smile about: We’re creating blood vessels on a chip. 

Researchers at NIST collaborated with the American Dental Association to 3D-print small devices known as microfluidic chambers, containing channels through which tiny quantities of fluid can flow. Then, they inserted human endothelial cells (which ordinarily line surfaces of the body). 

Many of the cells adhered to the walls of the tube-shaped channels, forming an artificial blood vessel similar to a straw, about the size of a large capillary. Its opening was about 110-150 microns (millionths of a meter) wide and its sides were only as thick as a single endothelial cell, about 5 microns. From there, the researchers pushed fluid into the chamber seeded with particles to better track the resulting flow, capturing the process with a 3D confocal microscope. 

Pictured here, the particles (green) move through the artificial tissue. The blue dots show the cells’ central nuclei. As the image shows, the particles might leak out of the cell layer or get trapped in small pores. 

With this setup, researchers can measure how fluid flow affects the mechanical properties of biological tissue, such as its elasticity and porousness. That’s helpful for understanding the effects of drugs on blood vessels, how tissue resists inflammation, how capillaries can regulate blood pressure and how tissue can act as a protective physical barrier.

And the connection to your pearly whites? In the future, our ADA colleagues could use the chip to, for example, study the way experimental drugs for treating gum disease affect the elasticity of blood vessels.

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Released January 7, 2022, Updated October 12, 2022