Patients who have been injured in an accident or suffered from a particular muscular disease sometimes need plastic surgery to regain their appearance and their muscular function. Currently, muscular tissue is taken from other parts of the body to be used as a filler, but with the use of cultured tissue, patients would be spared the additional operation.
Growing tissue first requires a “scaffold”, a three-dimensional structure which can temporarily replace the tissue that normally surrounds the muscle cells. To design such a scaffold is a challenge in itself. The scaffolding must resemble the cells’ environment in the body and must not be rejected, but at the same time it must gradually break down when it is no longer needed. It must also be exactly as hard or soft as required, and have the correct surface structure so that the cultured tissue matches the body’s own, adjacent cells.
Lund researcher Linda Elowsson uses scaffolds made of blood and plasma.
“A great advantage of this is that it should be possible to use the patient’s own blood. If one then also uses muscle cells grown from a small tissue sample from the patient him/herself, the risk of rejection becomes minimal”, she says.
The blood-based scaffolds were developed by Harald Kirsebom from the Department of Biotechnology. He uses a “cryogel” technology in which diluted blood is polymerised in a frozen state and is thereby transformed into a porous, sponge-like material. The freezing process gives rise to ice crystals, which leave behind pores inside the material once they have thawed and melted away. Then a solution of myoblasts (precursors of muscle cells) is poured into these pores in order to grow muscle tissue.
Work has so far gone according to plan. The scaffolds appear to be breaking down gradually, and the myoblasts have begun to develop in the direction of complete muscle fibres.
So far, the cell culture is taking place in a sort of test tube. If the technique is successful, larger containers could be tried in the future, to give the material enough space to allow a piece of tissue to be cut to the exact size and appearance needed. Another possibility is to produce the scaffold in a mold of the right design and to grow the cells there.
Much remains to be done, however. It is not just a question of producing a tissue with the right sort of cells – it must also be able to function once it is in place. Blood vessels must for example be prepared to grown into the tissue to supply it with nourishment, and nerves must be able to grow in to control the new muscles.
“There are many research teams in different places working on tissue culture – “tissue engineering” – when it comes to cartilage and bone. There are nowhere near as many working on muscles, precisely because they present a considerably greater challenge”, says Linda Elowson.
She is part of the muscle biology team led by Professor Madeleine Durbeej-Hjalt and she considers tissue culture to be an incredible exciting interdisciplinary research field. In time, this research can provide great possibilities for the treatment of patients with damage to cartilage, diseased muscular tissue, burn injuries to the skin and others.
TEXT: INGELA BJÖRCK
For more information please contact
Linda Elowson Linda.Elowsson@med.lu.se