November 9, 2015

Tissue engineers recruit cells to make their own strong matrix

Aligned and alit
Fluorescent labeling shows extra cellular matrix (green) aligned with the directions
specified by shaped tissue culture molds. Image: Jacquelyn Schell/Brown University

(November 9, 2015)  Extracellular matrix is the material that gives tissues their strength and stretch. It’s been hard to make well in the lab, but a Brown University team reports new success. The key was creating a culture environment that guided cells to make ECM themselves.

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery but the best way to make something is often to co-opt the original process and make it work for you. In a sense, that’s how scientists at Brown University accomplished a new advance in tissue engineering.

In the journal Biomaterials, the team reports culturing cells to make extracellular matrix (ECM) of two types and five different alignments with the strength found in natural tissue and without using any artificial chemicals that could make it incompatible to implant.

ECM is the fibrous material between cells in tissues like skin, cartilage, or tendon that gives them their strength, stretchiness, squishiness, and other mechanical properties. To help patients heal wounds and injuries, engineers and physicians have strived to make ECM in the lab that’s aligned as well as it is when cells make it in the body. So far, though, they’ve struggled to recreate ECM. Using artificial materials provides strength, but those don’t interact well with the body. Attempts to extract and build upon natural ECM have yielded material that’s too weak to reimplant.

The Brown team tried a different approach to making both collagen, which is strong, and elastin, which is stretchy, with different alignments of their fibers. They cultured ECM-making cells in specially designed molds that promoted the cells to make their own natural but precisely guided ECM.

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