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Tissue regeneration

HOUGHTON – A Michigan Technological University scientist recently became one if only six researchers around the country to receive a prestigious biomedical award.

Feng Zhao, whose work involves building nanoscaffolds out of natural materials to grow tissues, was given the Rising Star Award by the Biomedical Engineering Society.

“I’m quite excited about it, and very deeply honored for receiving an award like that, because this is a kind of recognition from peers in our field,” said Zhao, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at Tech. “To get that recognition is always important for us.”

Zhao decided to target heart disease, the leading cause of death in America and globally. She focuses on cardiovascular tissue – small-diameter vessels the size of a coronary artery, and even smaller capillaries.

But cardiac tissue requires a very organized structure, with highly aligned cells. And synthetic nanoscaffolding, used to grow cells, is difficult to make in a complex structure. It’s also more prone to degradation, or triggering a hostile response from the body to a foreign object.

Zhao has been able to make the scaffolding out of the same kind of proteins and sugars used to build cells in the body. The nanofibers are only 80 nanometers across – less than a thousandth as thick as a sheet of paper.

To give the cells a good environment for growth, Zhao tries to replicate the environment in which they grow naturally, from oxygen concentration to nutrients.

“We put the cells in this environment and let them grow, and also let the cells make the material,” she said. “The material made by the cells is quite complex, just like the real material in the human body. Also, we control the structure. Then the cells can make a line of nanofibers. We make that material, and also we combine it with stem cells. Then we can make the tissue, highly mimic the native tissue.”

It’s still early. They’re making tissues and testing them on small animals, which could take some time, Zhao said. If those tests are successful, the searchers would move on to larger animals, and eventually, clinical trials on humans.

“That might take quite a long time,” Zhao said. “But we are on the road.”