Tissue engineering is like upgrading a building. The building is our body damaged by age or disease. When one or more tissues fail due to an accident or aging, prostheses or other artificial materials are inserted in the body by doctors. These materials act as a scaffold so the builders – our cells – can grow on them, lay the bricks down (the extracellular matrix) and upgrade the degraded building – our damaged body.
Regenerative medicine, the field of tissue engineering, is an increasingly exciting field, where soft tissues, organs or bone are extended or regrown. Regenerative medicine in action includes bone grafting, regeneration of the cornea in the eye, nervous tissue and even the liver. While some regenerative treatments are already in regular medical care, others, such as lab-engineered liver cells, have the potential to change lives if they can be developed further.
It is exciting to know that my research in urological tissue engineering faces the new challenges for regenerative medicine. The majority of urological conditions are due to aging of the human body. Therefore, tissue engineering can help rebuild the old tissue by for example, surgically strengthening the pelvic floor. Urinary tract, bladder, pelvic floor, urethra and vagina are made of soft tissue. Thus, in contrast to most other reconstructions that use solid materials as scaffold, soft materials are needed for urological reconstructions because they resemble the natural tissues. To solve this challenge we use biodegradable polymers to create structures similar to human tissues.
Biodegradable polymers are a preferred choice for tissue scaffolds as they can be degraded by the human body and do not harm the patient once implanted. Biodegradable polymers include lactic acid – the polymer in absorbable sutures and polyurethane, a bouncy cell-friendly polymer. Both polymers are fairly sticky for cells, thus cells like growing on them. They can be manufactured in various ways to produce a wide range of products for urological applications as well as for wound repair like ulcers and burns.
Polymers are a good scaffold material, but can be improved by mixing with active compounds which give them additional functions. For example, when mixed with hormones polymers can induce collagen production in older women, while mixing polymers with heparin induces the production of blood vessels which is very important for the formation of new, healthy tissue.
Our body, the building we are living in, deteriorates with age. Thus, regenerative medicine aimed at renewing ageing tissues can repair a damaged building, thereby improving our quality of life. The discovery of new biodegradable materials creates more possibilities, which are not restricted to urology only. The use of biodegradable materials in regenerative medicine might help when nerves are damaged due to a car accident or when big chunks of tissue are removed due to cancer. Thus, regenerative medicine is growing to be an essential field for a variety of medical applications, building and refurbishing damaged body parts.
About the Author
Giulia Gigliobianco is a final year PhD student at the University Of Sheffield (UK) in the department of material science and engineering. Her research is about novel materials to treat pelvic organ prolapse in women. She organises outreach activities for women in engineering and children within the University of Sheffield. In her spare time, she bakes and she writes a blog about her life as PhD student.