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More than meets the eye

Northeastern University engineering professor Jeffrey Ruberti and his research colleagues are breaking new ground in the technique known as “hybrid tissue engineering” by attempting to combine cow tissue with human tissue to produce corneas for human transplant.

Their effort has gained support from the National Institutes of Health, which recently awarded Ruberti’s team a two-year, $785,000 grant.

(Click here to watch a video of Ruberti and his colleagues discussing their research)

If successful, the research could solve a potential shortage of corneas suitable for transplant. More than 33,000 Americans require corneal transplants every year in order to preserve their vision from diseases such as Fuchs’ Dystrophy and Keratoconus. But the explosive growth in LASIK eye surgery, which renders corneas unsuitable for transplant, has made it important to develop a viable method of producing corneas in the lab, said Ruberti.

The cornea, which is primarily made of collagen, is one of the most well-organized and structurally uniform tissues in the human body.Tissue engineers have had limited success in replicating that natural organization. That is why Ruberti and his colleagues are looking at an alternative source of collagen—from the skin of a cow—to build this intricate tissue in the lab.

Taking a sample of collagen from the cow and using specific environmental conditions, the team manipulates the collagen into a template. Human corneal cells are then combined with the template, where they reproduce, organize and build new corneal tissue.

“In the right environment, it seems that collagen has the ability to reshape itself with minimal guidance,” said Ruberti.

The next step for Ruberti and his colleagues—Nima Saeidi, a postdoctoralassociate in his lab, James Zieske, a senior scientist at Schepens Eye Research Institute in Boston and Vickery Trinkaus-Randall, a biochemistry and ophthalmology professor at Boston University School of Medicine—will be to transplant the engineered tissue into animals.

There are other possible applications that could result from their research, including engineered ligaments, tendons and other collagen-based tissues.

“We are finally beginning to understand why nature has chosen collagen molecules as the principal structural element in animals,” said Ruberti. “It is simply a matter of providing the correct conditions and voila; one might turn cow skin into cornea substitutes. There is a tremendous opportunity here to treat many diseases.”

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