Unexpected twists and turns: How I ended up doing tissue engineering scaffold research

Posted on 23. Jun, 2011 by in Academic Departments, Healthcare and Medicine, Issues, Magazine, Mechanical Engineering, People, Research

By Lih-Sheng (Tom) Turng, professor, mechanical engineering
Bionates theme leader, Wisconsin Institute for Discovery

Wonder how a UW-Madison mechanical engineer ended up doing research on cell culture?

Lih-Sheng Tom Turng

Lih-Sheng Tom Turng

I am not talking about me. I actually am referring to Charles Lindbergh, one of our most celebrated student from the Department of Mechanical Engineering. While Lindbergh is famous for his trans-Atlantic solo flight from New York to Paris, it’s less known that he co-authored a book, titled The Culture of Organs, with 1912 Nobel laureate Alexis Carrel.

I am lucky and privileged enough to be taking a similar “detour” with an opportunity to work with a group of multidisciplinary researchers.

Imagine a world where people with diabetes no longer have to worry about the food they eat, where a man who suffered a major heart attack can be seen running a marathon less than a year later, where a woman who once needed a cane can now walk through the aisles of a grocery store pain-free. These are the types of advances that tissue engineering can bring to society.

Tissue engineering is an interdisciplinary field that applies the principles of engineering (materials science, polymer processing, engineering design, micro-fabrication and biomedical engineering) in combination with the life sciences (biochemistry, genetics, cell and molecular biology) to the development of biological substitutes that can restore, maintain or improve the functions of diseased or damaged human tissues. Tissue engineering will not only lead to the next generation of medical implants, but also will bypass the need for tissue replacement by fostering repair and regeneration.

Tissue engineering scaffolds are biological substitutes on which healthy human cells can be seeded, proliferated and differentiated into various types of functional tissues, inside or outside of the human body, for medical treatments and drug screening.

Recent stem cell developments at UW-Madison and elsewhere are exciting, and induced pluripotent stem cells hold great promise for regenerative medicine. Tissue scaffolds provide one of the enabling platforms on which the significant benefits of stem cell and regenerative medicine research could be materialized.

Tissue engineering scaffolds are actually complex structures that are made of either natural or synthetic polymers. Depending on how they are fabricated and their required functions, scaffolds come in a wide variety of shapes and structures, with some even mimicking the physical construction of an organ. Many contain numerous tiny micropores, or channels for transporting nutrients, oxygen and wastes.
As the cells grow and penetrate, the scaffold will degrade to provide space for the cells or allow for the release of embedded drugs that then foster tissue regeneration or repair.

While tissue engineering scaffolds are not new, the ability to produce them in large quantities and for a wide array of applications is. The reason that major advances in healthcare have not been seen to date is that there has been no way to provide reliable and reproducible scaffolds to hospitals and clinics around the world. Current patient needs cannot be met by making one scaffold construct at a time in a research laboratory. If we accept the challenge of imitating nature, we must develop a cost-effective manufacturing process for making scaffolds in the same way as other mass-produced products are made. That was our impetus for embarking on this great endeavor.

Anyone who saw the 1967 movie “The Graduate” will probably remember the one word of advice that Mr. McGuire solemnly gave Benjamin: “plastics.” Plastics, which are polymeric compounds with additives added for the purposes of cost and performance, have become the materials of choice for many engineering applications, despite their inferior mechanical properties (compared to metals or ceramics). Factors such as cost-effectiveness, consistency of product quality and feasibility of mass production are what make plastics so attractive. Of all of the plastics used, approximately one third go through injection-molding machines. This makes the injection-molding process the most important polymer processing method available for mass-producing net-shape plastic components with complex geometries and excellent tolerances.

I’ve been involved in researching and developing various novel injection-molding processes using conventional polymers, biobased blends and nanocomposites for many years. By employing a patent-pending process we developed here at UW-Madison, we can injection-mold 3-D, highly porous scaffolds made of biodegradable materials. In addition, by adding very tiny nanoparticles (on the order of tens or hundreds of nanometers) to the polymer matrix, we can tailor the mechanical properties of the resulting scaffolds. This is very important because, depending on the rigidity of the underlying scaffolds, mesenchymal stem cells actually turn into bone, cartilage or fat cells.

Healthcare is on the precipice of a huge expansion, with tissue engineering scaffolds at the forefront of invention and innovation. The effects of such an advance are far-reaching. The chronic diseases that plague our nation, such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes, could benefit from the drug delivery and tissue repair and re-growth opportunities offered by tissue engineering scaffolds.

Ten years ago, I would not have imagined myself working in the field of tissue engineering. Nonetheless, as I look back, my previous research on injection molding, biobased polymers and nanocomposites has paved the way for this interdisciplinary research opportunity. I look forward to leveraging the magic and science of the self-regenerative power of our cells for advancing the health and well-being of our society.

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