April 18, 2008

Regeneration ‘toolbox’ may lead to new organs, limbs

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Cato Laurencin, M.D., Ph.D., left, with Vanderbilt’s George Hill, Ph.D., before last week’s Discovery Lecture. (photo by Neil Brake)

Regeneration ‘toolbox’ may lead to new organs, limbs

Cato Laurencin, M.D., Ph.D., is out to prove that a man can be more like a newt.

Humans, of course, cannot regenerate their own limbs like the lowly amphibian can.

“But while we’re not newts,” Laurencin said during last week’s Discovery Lecture at Vanderbilt Medical Center, “perhaps we have some newt-like qualities that we can harness.”

Laurencin, a pioneering orthopaedic surgeon and engineer at the University of Virginia, is pursuing a bold program of “tissue engineering,” with the goal of restoring living and fully functional tissue to people who have lost ligaments, cartilage and even entire limbs to trauma or disease.

Tissue engineering is “the application of biological, chemical and engineering principles for the repair, restoration or regeneration of living tissue using biomaterials, cells and factors alone or in combination,” said Laurencin, who earned his medical degree from Harvard and his Ph.D. in Biochemical Engineering/Biotechnology from MIT.

For more than two decades, Laurencin and his colleagues have been working on what he calls a “regeneration toolbox,” a diverse array of technologies for achieving regeneration. These tools include:

• Development of novel biomaterials, notably polymeric microspheres, to create a “robust scaffold” that is biocompatible and biodegradable, and which allows bone cells to migrate into and populate the matrix;

• Application of adult stem cells, bioreactive technology and nanotechnology, including polymeric nanofibers, to speed the growth of new tissue; and

• Injection of chitosan thermogel, derived from the abundant polysaccharide chitin, to deliver drugs and other factors to aid regeneration.

“The next thing we want to do … is to put them all together so we can make an arm or a leg,” Laurencin said.

“We can create all these different materials right now,” he said. “We can create skin. We can create vascular, nerve, tendon tissue, ligaments (and) muscle. We can create bone and we can create cartilage … The future is going to be integration of these different types of technologies.”

Laurencin is the University Professor and Lillian T. Pratt Distinguished Professor and Chairman of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Virginia. His research currently is funded by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Defense.

For more information about his research and the University of Virginia Center for Musculoskeletal Regeneration and Repair, visit http://faculty.virginia.edu/laurencin.