New methods for tissue regeneration discovered

By JESSICA KASAMOTO | April 5, 2018




Researchers used soy plants as inspiration for tissue regeneration ideas.

Researchers at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences have recently found two new techniques for tissue regeneration. One technique draws inspiration from naturally occurring proteins found in fetuses, while the other draws inspiration from soy plants.

In the 1970s, scientists discovered that wounds on fetal skin incurred before the third trimester (week 28 of the pregnancy) left no signs of scarring. Since then, scientists have been repeatedly trying to replicate fetal skin for the purpose of regenerative medicine. 

Scar formation has always been seen as one of the major obstacles in wound repair; in fact, the ability for skin to heal without scars could potentially prevent many functional issues in healing patients.

The skin of a fetus contains high levels of a protein called fibronectin, which has been shown to promote cell binding. Fibronectin can manifest in two structures, the globular structure found in blood and the fibrous structure found in tissues. 

Although fibrous fibronectin holds the most promise for the purpose of scarless healing, most research in the past did not focus on this aspect since it seemed to be a major challenge to engineers.

However, Kit Parker, a professor of Bioengineering and Applied Physics at Harvard, recently created a platform that manufactures fibrous fibronectin, called Rotary Jet-Spinning. 

In this platform, fibronectin dissolved in solvent is loaded into the machine and pushed out of the machine by a centrifugal force caused by the spinning of the device. The fibronectin polymers gradually solidify, and fibers can eventually be collected.

When tested, this fibronectin dressing was shown to increase tissue restoration in humans by up to 30 percent. In addition, the treated skin wounds seemed to have the same thickness of natural skin and were able to regrow follicles for hair, which is something rarely seen in regenerative skin healing techniques.

Most research on skin regeneration up to date has revolved around treatments that incorporate scaffolds, cells and even growth factors. 

Christopher Chantre, a graduate student in Parker’s Disease Biophysics Group, explained how different his lab’s findings are from other current skin regenerative research. 

“This is an important step forward,” Chantre said. “Here we were able to demonstrate tissue repair and hair follicle regeneration using an entirely material approach. This has clear advantages for clinical translation.”

The second technique for tissue regeneration is based on the discovery that a soy-based nanofiber can promote healing.

The researchers in the same group used the same Rotary Jet-Spinning machine and technique to “spin” soy-fibers into a similar wound dressing as the fibronectin. These experiments further showed that the dressing showed 72 percent increased healing over wounds without any type of dressing.

The group is excited about these two findings because they believe the fibers can be the future of regenerative dressing and healing. The soy-based nanofibers are inexpensive, which makes them a viable option for large-scale production, and the fibronectin dressing would be a good option for facial wounds due to their ability to prevent scarring.

According to Parker, these breakthroughs can be attributed to observations concerning reproductive medicine.

“During a woman’s cycle, when her estrogen levels go high, a cut will heal faster. If you do a surgery on a baby still in the womb, they have scarless wound healing,” Parker said. “Both of these technologies are rooted in the most fascinating of all the topics in human biology — how we reproduce.”

In an interview with The News-Letter, junior Biomedical Engineering major Victor Wang explained why he believes that research in the field of regenerative tissues is important.

“I think [this research] is very interesting because of the impact it can have. Victims of extreme trauma to the face are often left with disfigured skin, which drastically impacts their quality of life. These people develop a fear of public areas,” Wang said. “Currently, there are only a few treatments available, the most expensive being a face transplant. A drug that allows full skin tissue regeneration is more accessible.”

Wang believes that this research should be further pursued because it could have a huge clinical impact on patients with disfigured skin. In addition, Wang believes that further research could have the potential to uncover other practical applications for fibronectin. 

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