Researchers in China and Switzerland have developed electronic blood vessels they say can be actively tuned to address subtle changes in the body after implantation.

A piece of the electronic blood vessel. Credit: Xingyu Jiang et al.

Made from a metal-polymer conductor membrane that’s flexible and biodegradable, they effectively replaced key arteries in rabbits during trials, according to a paper in the journal Matter.

It’s early days, the authors note, and much more work is needed before possible progress to human trails. However, they see the potential to create artificial vessels that are more than simple scaffolds and could co-ordinate with other electronic devices.

“We take the natural blood vessel-mimicking structure and go beyond it by integrating more comprehensive electrical functions that are able to provide further treatments, such as gene therapy and electrical stimulation,” says lead author Xingyu Jiang, from China’s Southern University of Science and Technology.

A variety of tissue-engineered blood vessels (TEBVs) have been created to provide mechanical support for hard-to-treat blockages of tiny blood vessels, but these have limitations, Jiang says, and none “has met the demands of treating cardiovascular diseases”.

He and colleagues fabricated their electronic blood vessels using a cylindrical rod to roll up a membrane made from poly(L-lactide-co-ε-caprolactone).

In the lab, they showed that electrical stimulation from the blood vessels increased the proliferation and migration of endothelial cells in a wound-healing model, suggesting that electrical stimulation could facilitate the formation of new endothelial blood vessel tissue.

They also integrated the flexible circuitry with an electroporation device, which applies an electrical field to make cell membranes more permeable, and observed that this successfully delivered green fluorescent protein DNA into three kinds of blood vessel cells.

A three-month trial in rabbits showed, they say, that the artificial arteries appeared to function just as well as natural ones, with no sign of narrowing, and with no inflammatory response in the host.

Part of the next stage is to try to pair the electronic blood vessels with smaller electronics than the electroporation device used in this study.

“In the future, optimisations need be taken by integrating it with minimised devices, such as minimised batteries and built-in control systems, to make all the functional parts fully implantable and even fully biodegradable in the body,” says Jiang.

Even further down the track is the idea of combining it with artificial intelligence to collect and store information on an individual’s blood velocity, blood pressure, and blood glucose levels.

In situ monitoring of the electronic blood vessel in a rabbit. Credit: Xingyu Jiang et al.

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