In one experiment, the research team grew heart muscle cells on top of a piece of finished fabric. The fabric caused the muscle cells to link together to form a tissue that “beat,” when stimulated electrically, for one week.
“It’s a very clever approach,” says Juan Hinestroza, assistant professor and director of the Textiles Nanotechnology Laboratory at Cornell University. “The control of the architecture of the scaffold is really, really novel. And the scalability– you can use it to make bigger patterns.”
Other than building three-dimensional scaffolds for organ reconstruction, the new fabric could be embedded in bandages, accelerating wound healing and minimizing scar formation.
The material could also find other novel uses. An appealing feature is its unusual elasticity. The fibronectin protein, which forms the base thread of the fabric, is part of the molecular machinery that allows muscles to contract and relax.
“[Fibronectin] is compressed like a spring when you’re contracting your muscle, and when you relax, it pushes it back,” says Parker. This structure gives the fabric its elasticity, and allows it to be stretched up to 18 times its original length. “When you pull on the fabric, you unfold the proteins,” providing additional strength, says Parker.
Parker’s team is exploring the mechanical properties of the new fabric, examining its strength and stretchiness. The new stamping method could let them make larger, more complex fabrics. “The base technology is down,” says Parker. “Now we need to facilitate the spinout applications.”