Scientists at the University of Bristol are creating a new scaffolding technology which could be used to grow tissues such as skin, nerves and cartilage using 3D spaghetti-like structures.
The new structures are being developed using proteins from alpha helices - one of the fundamental ways that strings of amino acids fold - to create long fibres called hydrogelating self assembling fibres (hSAFs), or hydrogels.
By learning how to build hSAFs from scratch, the researchers are starting to understand how they might use these 3D scaffolds to support the growth of nerves, blood vessels and cartilage tailored to the needs of individual patients.
"To make hydrogels you need something long and thin that will interact with copies of itself and form meshes, but is also water soluble. However rather than using natural proteins, which are complex, we've tried to make something as simple as possible that we fully understand using peptides and self assembling proteins," said study's lead author Professor Dek Woolfson.
Currently, hydrogel scaffold structures, made either synthetically or from natural resources such as seaweed, are used in everyday products from shampoos to drug capsules.
However, Woolfson explains, the hSAFs his team are developing will have different uses.
"The downside of using peptides or proteins is that they are expensive compared with synthetic polymers. We are almost certainly looking at high end biomedical applications, generating cells which can be used in living systems. Potential medical benefits include growing tissues such as skin, nerves and cartilage in the laboratory which will advance basic research and may lead to biomedical applications like speeding up wound healing and grafting," Woolfson said.
The research appears in the latest issue of Business, the quarterly highlights magazine of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).