An EU-funded research team at Norway's University of Bergen is using nanotechnology to find a way of mimicking the body's natural processes, including inducing cells to create new blood vessels for biomedically engineered tissues. The University of Bergen is involved in several major EU-funded projects, such as VascuBone ('Construction kit for tailor-made vascularized bone implants'), which has 15 partners and EUR 12 million of research funding under the Cooperation Programme of the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7). The project's remit is to improve the formation of blood vessels during the regeneration of new bone tissue.
Biomedical and nanotechnology researchers around the world are working hard to induce cells to create new tissues. But all tissues need a blood supply and that is what the University of Bergen research team is focusing on.
The team is looking at how nanotechnology can mimic the natural processes of the body. To do so, they are investigating how cells interact with each other and with synthetic biomaterials, and what the process of regeneration involves. The aim is to understand and then copy the cells' natural mechanisms for the regeneration and engineering of new tissues.
'An ideal implant,' explained research team head Professor James Lorens from the University of Bergen, 'should mimic the body's natural tissues and send proliferation and differentiation signals to the cells. The nanoscale topology is vital for controlling how this occurs.'
'A primary challenge with any tissue formation, however, is securing the blood supply to the new tissue. In other words, making sure that blood vessels are formed within the tissue.'
Professor Lorens' team is working on the blood supply aspect of tissue engineering and has already succeeded in placing three blood vessel components (epithelial and smooth muscle cells as well as matrix proteins) into an implant where cells are connected to new tissue. The experiment was successful in both Petri dishes and small implants in animals.
'We have demonstrated vessel formation in synthetic implants in our lab animals,' said Professor Lorens. 'In the next phase, we'll examine more specific tissue types such as bone tissue, for example.'
The team is also looking at ways of using nanotechnology for direct cell communication. To determine how nanostructured surfaces affect blood vessel formation, the researchers placed cells on a nanostructured biomaterial, the surface of which had been treated with certain molecules that send specific signals to cells.
'We need a better understanding of how cells perceive nanofabricated surfaces and how this affects communication between cells,' said Professor Lorens. 'By reproducing the signals that cells encounter from their immediate surroundings inside the body's various tissues, we can control how the cells proliferate and differentiate.'
Part of the research group's work is to establish how these processes work in cancerous tissues. Professor Lorens commented, 'With tissue engineering we can reproduce a tumour in order to study how it interacts with blood vessels. If we succeed in cutting the blood supply to the tumour, it will starve and die. Tumour tissue engineering can also help us to understand how cancer cells spread via blood circulation.'
The University of Bergen team is also involved in an EU collaboration to find new medications that can block the blood supply to cancerous tissues, in effect starving the cancer by depriving it of blood.
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