Kam Patel reports on speakers at the Institute of Physics congress in Brighton this week
ADVANCES in materials engineering could soon result in remarkable new ways of growing human tissue, Sheffield University's Richard van Noort told the Institute of Physics congress.
Professor van Noort, head of Sheffield's new centre for biomaterial and tissue engineering, said developments in tissue engineering will be particularly important in the treatment of severe burns and regeneration of severed nerves.
Conventional treatment relies heavily on grafting skin from elsewhere on the patient's body on to the burnt region. Dr van Noort said: "If only the surface is lost it is not a really big problem but if it is deeper, grafting can be pretty traumatic to the patient - and there is only so much healthy skin you can use for this purpose. Current methods of growing the victim's skin in the laboratory can take weeks."
Professor van Noort envisages that in the next few years it will be possible to grow skin much faster, typically in less than a week, and in substantial quantities.
The technique proposed by Professor van Noort involves using specially designed porous polymeric biomaterials as a "scaffolding" for the growth of skin. For the the dermis, containing blood vessels, nerves, hair roots and sweat and sebaceous glands supported by a network of fibrous and elastic cells, the surface of the biomaterial would be biologically modified to encourage the attachment and proliferation of dermal cells obtained from a donor.
After its growth and establishment in the laboratory, the dermis would be implanted into the patient. Gradually it would be invaded by the patient's own cells, to form the new dermis.
At the same time as the new dermis is being created, a monolayer of the outer skin, the epidermis, would also be grown, again using a specially designed substrate to accelerate and encourage the process. For the epidermis, the patient would have to be the donor of cells to avoid rejection by the body.
Once grown, this can be placed on top of the dermis already transferred to the patient. The base used to grow the monolayer sits on top and is removed by simply applying a thermal shock to the area which detaches it from the new outer skin.
"Over time the scaffolding used for the dermal layer would disappear through, for instance, enzyme attack or dissolution, leaving no trace of the original biomaterial."
Professor van Noort said that as well as academic researchers, several companies are working on developing the new generation of biomaterials that will make such treatment of burn victims reality.
The developments are being made possible by an explosion in the field of biomaterials. The world market for biomaterials for implants alone is worth Pounds 20 billion. Professor van Noort said teaching and research in the field is particularly challenging.
"It only works as an interdisciplinary subject. And this is a reflection of the fact that the clinical problems that we face in the application of the biomaterials lie across many disciplines including chemistry, physics, materials, biology, medicine," he said.
To encourage greater collaboration, Professor van Noort is hoping to form the Yorkshire Biomaterials Network, linking Sheffield University researchers with colleagues at other universities in the region.
The network would in turn link up with Yorkshire and Humber Medilink, a forum for firms specialising in medical technologies.
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