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Pioneering ‘tweezers’ that use ultrasound beams to grip and manipulate tiny clusters of cells under electronic, push-button control could lead to life-changing medical advances, such as better cartilage implants that reduce the need for knee replacement operations.
Using the crafted sound fields, cartilage cells taken from a patient’s knee can be levitated for weeks in a nutrient-rich fluid. This means the nutrients can reach every part of the culture’s surface and, combined with the stimulation provided by the ultrasound, enables the cells to grow and to form better implant tissue than when cultured on a glass petri dish.
By holding the cells in the required position firmly but gently, the tweezers can also mould the growing tissue into exactly the right form so that the implant is truly fit-for-purpose when inserted into the patient’s knee. Over 75,000 knee replacements are carried out each year in the UK; many could be avoided if cartilage implants could be improved.
This is just one potential application of ultrasonic tweezers developed with Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) funding by a closely integrated team harnessing and combining expertise at four UK universities. The team comprises researchers from the Universities of Bristol, Dundee, Glasgow and Southampton, as well as a range of industrial partners; their extremely close and highly productive collaboration, supported by the four-year EPSRC grant, has established the UK as a world leader in this fast-growing technology.
Sound engineering - complex sonotweezers can manipulate and arrange many small particles simultaneously. Professor Bruce Drinkwater - Bristol University