Blood vessels raised in tissue culture may one day help heal broken hearts. According to initial results presented yesterday at the BioMEMS and Biomedical Nanotechnology World 2000 conference in Ohio, researchers have taken the first steps toward growing replacement blood vessels in the laboratory for transplant into the bodies of heart attack victims.

The grand plan envisioned by Ohio State University investigator Nicanor Moldovan and his colleagues entails sowing cells harvested from vessel lining, or endothelium, in silicon molds shaped like capillaries. The resulting cultivars would then be delivered to the heart via microscopic machines called "angiochips." Once inside, they could begin to repair the damage caused by a heart attack. "We probably couldn't bring tissue back in its original form, but we could try to revascularize it, to make a heart beat again," Moldovan surmises, "or at least keep the heart tissue from dying by creating new capillaries that would provide blood and oxygen as soon as possible."

So far the researchers have cleared the first hurdle: demonstrating that the seed cells can grow two-dimensionally in grooves carved into a soft, clear gel. Although the plan is extraordinarily complex, Moldovan remains hopeful. "We've had to deal with a lot of speculation or supposition, but our approach appears to be a very promising one," he remarks. "Once we have proof that we can grow cells in specific three-dimensional shapes on or inside silicon, then we hope to come back to the tissue."