CHICAGO, Dec. 7 (Xinhua) -- By manufacturing self-assembling natural matrices that mimic those that normally surround cells to protect and direct them to a specific location in the body, researchers at Northwestern University (NU) has made body regenerating its own parts within reach.
These matrices are made of organic materials, they can biodegrade without leaving unnecessary and potentially harmful foreign objects in the body.
"What we're doing is jumpstarting biological regeneration using synthetic nanomaterials," said Samuel I. Stupp, director of Northwestern University's Institute for BioNanotechnology. "Molecule by molecule, this is bottom-up design using nanotechnology concepts."
NU researchers have so far focused on regenerating bone or cartilage, which requires optimizing matrices to "dress" existing cells or knit around growth factors, namely naturally occurring proteins deployed by the body when there's an injury.
"This matrix technology addresses the regeneration problem in a highly non-invasive way," Stupp said. The standard spinal fusion surgery is a bone graft: taking a patient's own bone, say, from his hip, and using that help to fuse vertebrae. That potentially could be two times under the knife, two hospital bills, and ultimately, two times the pain and risk.
"Our nanotechnology circumvents all of that. It avoids the need for harvesting of bone and use of large amounts of growth factor."
The fact is that a few years ago, Stupp and his colleagues have used this technology of directing molecules to repair and regenerate to help paralyzed mice walk again. After receiving an injection of custom-made molecules, the mice, paralyzed from the waist down, were attempting to run just a few weeks later.
Stupp and his NU colleagues are so far advanced in this type of regenerative medicine that they are contacting the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to seek approval to launch a clinical trial for spinal regeneration in humans, essentially growing new bone between vertebrae.
The next frontier for NU researchers is the marriage of stem cells with nanotechnology to create organs. Once they are able to couple the matrix with a stem cell, they will be able to design it not only to protect against premature cell death, but also to provide even more detailed instructions to the cell, such as whether to divide, replicate itself, or differentiate into another cell type.