Imitating nature's scaffolding

A team of researchers at the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN) has successfully created artificial fibers with nanometer-sized features that can be used to grow cells and tissue structures.

These ‘fibrous scaffolds’ have been imbued with features of the natural extracellular matrix, the ground substance in which cells are embedded and a vital component in the engineering of human tissues.

This research was recently published in the March issue of the leading journal Advanced Materials. The work on the “Three-Dimensional Reconstituted Extracellular Matrix Scaffolds for Tissue Engineering” also won an Outstanding Paper Award at the 12th International Conference on Biomedical Engineering in December 2005.

Scaffolds are ‘templates’ upon which the desired cell type or precursor is seeded for the growth of different tissues. Signaling molecules can also be incorporated into these structures to instruct or regulate cell growth and differentiation. Using IBN’s fibrous scaffolds, tissue engineers, for example, would be able to take a patient’s own cells, grow it into tissue in the lab, and subsequently implant the developed tissue back into the patient.

While much work has been done to engineer suitable scaffolds, conventional production methods involve the use of high temperatures, organic solvents and/or a leaching step to develop porosity. Such conditions compromise the biological activity of proteins, and thus pose problems in the incorporation of biological molecules within the scaffolds.

Results have shown that cells could adhere and grow well on IBN’s fibrous scaffolds after they were incorporated with components such as collagen, fibronectin and cell-adhesion peptides. “We have created scaffolds based on natural polymers and extracellular matrix components that can be specially tailored for the adhesion and proliferation of a variety of cells,” said IBN Principal Research Scientist Dr Andrew Wan, who is the team leader of the project. “Hence, these scaffolds would have many potential applications in the engineering of tissues as implants, or as in vitro models for drug development“.

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