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There is a research lab at Cal Poly in the biomedical engineering department that’s growing tissue — and it’s not for your nose.

Biomedical engineering professor Kristen O’Halloran Cardinal and some 10 to 15 biomedical engineering students that work in the Tissue Engineering Lab are growing and creating blood vessels using adult human cells.

The blood vessels are being made to test stents not for implantation. A stent is a small metal device that is inserted into a blood vessel after someone has had a heart attack in order to open it back up for improved blood flow.

Cardiovascular disease is the number one killer in the United States; the disease kills about 2,300 Americans every day, according to the American Heart Association, which is an average of one death every 38 seconds.

“The need for bypass is what is driving the tissue engineered blood vessel research in many labs (including) the techniques that we use,” Cardinal said. “The need for better stents and stent testing is what drives our research.”

Testing stents in engineered blood vessels makes it a lot easier, cheaper and faster for the device industry and therefore it can possibly reduce the number of animal studies that are needed, Cardinal said.

Animal studies are expensive and there are also ethical concerns. An abundance of guidelines and rules must be followed when conducting research with animals, said biomedical engineering senior Yvette Castillo, who has worked in the lab for more than two years.

“It’s basically a cheaper way of testing stents before we put them in an in-vivo model, like a rabbit,” Castillo said. “If we figure out this stent isn’t going to work early on, we don’t waste the time, money and effort later on.”

The lab purchases endothelial cells (the cells in blood vessels) from companies and grows them in Petri dishes. One vial of cells costs about $200 and comes with 200,000 cells.

One blood vessels amounts to 12 million cells. Until the cells reach a necessary number, 200,000 cells are taken from a vial and moved to petri dishes to multiply.

In the meantime, plastic tubes are used as a scaffold (the shape/model of the blood vessel), and then the two are combined by injecting the cells into the tube. The process forms a basic but living human blood vessel. This is placed inside a type of growth chamber where it lives and grows.

The entire process takes about two weeks, which includes growing the cells until setting up the mimic blood vessel.

Being chosen to work in the lab is competitive for Cal Poly biomedical engineering students. There are 10 to 15 students on the waiting list to work in the lab at any given time.

“I didn’t really know anything about tissue engineering, but it sounded cool and you get the overall experience like how a lab is run,” said Brian Wong, a biomedical engineering senior who works in the lab primarily for the competitive edge.

Funding is less than it has been in the past with the current economy, which makes research, outside grants and money more sparse. The current funding has allowed space for six to eight undergraduates and four graduate students to participate, Cardinal said.

“We’re very lucky here at Cal Poly to have such an unbelievable pool of students to draw from; it’s one of the reasons I came to Cal Poly to be a faculty,” Cardinal said.

The team of students that work in the lab plan to present their research and findings at various conferences and publish it in journals.

The largest way the students want to have an impact is through device companies.

“These companies can do better and cheaper testing and therefore have products that are going to work better in the body,” Cardinal said.

This article was written by Hannah Hazdovac

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