In nature, cells and tissues assemble and organize themselves within a matrix of protein fibers that ultimately determines their structure and function, such as the elasticity of skin and the contractility of heart tissue. These natural design principles have now been successfully replicated in the lab by bioengineers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS).
These bioengineers have developed a new technology that may ultimately be used to regenerate heart and other tissues and to make nanometer-thick fabrics that are both strong and extremely elastic. The key breakthrough came in the development of a matrix that can assemble itself through interaction with a thermosensitive surface. The protein composition of that matrix can be customized to generate specific properties, and the nanofabric can then be lifted off as a sheet by altering temperature.
“To date it has been very difficult to replicate this extracellular matrix using manmade materials,” said Adam W. Feinberg, a postdoctoral fellow who is lead author of “Surface-Initiated Assembly of Protein Nanofabrics,” which appears in the advance on-line publication of Nano Letters. “But we thought if cells can build this matrix at the surface of their membranes, maybe we can build it ourselves on a surface too. We were thrilled to see that we could,” Feinberg said.
Coauthor Kit Parker is a core faculty member of the Wyss Institute, the Thomas D. Cabot Associate Professor of Applied Science and associate professor of bioengineering at SEAS, and a Principal Faculty member of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.
In the area of tissue regeneration, their technology, which is termed protein nanofabrics, represents a significant step forward. Current methods for regenerating tissue typically involve using synthetic polymers to create a scaffolding. But this approach can cause negative side effects as the polymers degrade. By contrast, nanofabrics are made from the same proteins as normal tissue, and thus the body can degrade them with no ill effects once they are no longer needed. Initial results have produced strands of heart muscle similar to the papillary muscle, which may lead to new strategies for repair and regeneration throughout the heart.
“With nanofabrics, we can control thread count, orientation, and composition, and that capability allows us to create novel tissue engineering scaffolds that direct regeneration,” said Parker. “It also enables us to exploit the nanoscale properties of these proteins in new ways beyond medical applications. There are a broad range of applications for this technology using natural, or designer, synthetic proteins.”
High-performance textiles are the second main application for this technology. By altering the type of protein used in the matrix, researchers can manipulate thread count, fiber orientation, and other properties to create fabrics with extraordinary properties. Today, an average rubber band can be stretched 500 to 600 percent, but future textiles may be stretchable by as much as 1,500 percent. Future applications for such textiles are as diverse as form-fitting clothing, bandages that accelerate healing, and industrial manufacturing.
The research is part of a larger program in Nanotextiles at the Wyss Institute and SEAS. In the same issue of Nano Letters, Parker’s team also reported on the development of a new technology that fabricates nanofibers using a high-speed, rotating jet and nozzle. This invention has potential applications ranging from artificial organs and tissue regeneration to clothing and air filters.
“The Wyss Institute is very proud to be associated with two such significant discoveries,” said Donald E. Ingber, M.D., Ph.D., Founding Director of the Wyss Institute. “These are great examples of realizing our mission of using nature’s design principles to develop technologies that will have a huge impact on the way we live.”
The researchers acknowledge the support of Harvard’s Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center at Harvard, Materials Research Science and Engineering Center, the Harvard Center for Nanoscale Systems, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the Wyss Institute.