Nerve cells ring in the Winter Olympics

Among the proud hosts of the forthcoming Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City are some creative tissue engineers at the local university. In an effort that displays the increasing control biologists can exert over living tissue, Patrick A. Tresco of the University of Utah and his colleagues recently sculpted living nerve cells into a microscopic version of the interlocking rings that symbolize the 2002 Olympic games.

OLYMPIC NERVE. Fluorescent dye makes these rings of nerve cells glow. University of Utah

Responding to a challenge by Tresco to make the cell-based logo, graduate student Mike Manwaring first used acid etching and other techniques to produce a microscopic mold of the rings on a piece of brass. He then poured silicone onto the mold to create a microscopic set of rings. Next, he placed the rubbery rings in a culture dish and covered them with proteins and cells called fibroblasts to promote nerve cell growth. Finally, Manwaring added nerve cells from adult rats to the culture, where they grew for several days on the scaffold that the rings supplied.

A picture of the rings was presented to the governor of Utah, Mike Leavitt, in December. To produce the colorful photo, the researchers spiked the culture with fluorescent antibodies that stick to nerve proteins.

All this could amount to more than just fun in the lab. “The intent was to tell a story of the progress in central nervous system research . . . that will have practical implications in the development of therapies for directing nerve fiber outgrowth following injury in the brain and spinal cord of adults,” says Tresco.

For example, the living rings reflect past work by Tresco’s group showing that, under the right conditions, fibroblasts can encourage–not inhibit, as is commonly thought–nerve cell growth.