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Weaving Synthetic Tissues

Posted on February 2nd, 2017 by in New Materials & Applications

Knee bone

The idea of somehow manufacturing replacement body parts sounds like something clearly in the realm of science fiction and for now, it is. But last week I came across a paper describing some work which moves us closer to that possibility becoming a reality.

Biomedical engineers at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) have developed a new smart fabric based on the analysis of natural tissues, and have their eyes set on one day being able to weave replacement tissues and body parts.

Smart Fabric

Our bodies are full of incredible materials, processes and systems. There’s a lot we can learn to inspire our design and improve the solutions we create.

The team behind this work have focused on Periosteum which is a material that covers the outer surfaces of bones. It’s a dense sleeve-like tissue which can be manipulated and connects the bone to muscles and tendons, while also giving bones additional strength. Periosteum is made up of collagen, elastin and other proteins in a complex structure.

After analysis of its properties and structure, the team set about creating a structurally similar synthetic tissue. They began by looking at the very low level make-up of the material and coming up with a way to replicate its weave-like architecture.

The Process

The team used a series of high resolution images to capture and then map the architecture of Periosteum. From there, they developed a structural model and developed a loom to weave swatches of a material with a similar pattern.

The material swatches were woven using a modern version of a jacquard loom, which is a device originally developed in 1804 to simplify the manufacture of complex textile patterns. While the original looms were controlled by a series of punched cards, the modern version used to weave these samples was computer controlled, being fed from patterns from the computer modelled architectures.

The team found that they were unable to use fibres of collagen and elastin to replicate Periosteum because their fibres are too small for the loom. So, instead, they used an elastic material and silk, which have similar properties to the naturally occurring collagen and elastin.

Initial mechanical testing of the swatches show that they exhibit similar properties to the natural weave found in periosteum.

The Impact

Advanced materials such as this could be used in a range of applications, but the team have their sights set a little higher. “Our longer-term goal is to weave biological tissues – essentially human body parts – in the lab to replace and repair our failing joints.” Joanna Ng, first author of the paper covering this work, said in a recent interview.

As well development of the materials themselves, there will need to be big steps taken to improve our ability to successfully manufacture them. The intricate weave patterns required and small scale of the fibres involved present a number of challenges.

The team at UNSW are looking to take this research to the next phase, with a hope of developing prototype bone implants over the next three years.


All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

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