PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — To find treatments for connective tissue disorders like fibrosis, scientists need models that can replicate the structure and function of human tissue when it’s healthy as well as when it isn’t, and react to drugs just like diseased human tissue would. But most models are based on animals and present significant limitations.
A new laboratory test model developed by Brown University researchers uses human cells and replicates not only the structure of human tissue, but also its mechanics.
The researchers describe the model in an Advanced Science study published on Tuesday, Feb. 1.
“This model gives researchers a new tool to not only explore the underlying mechanisms of fibrosis and inherited diseases of the extracellular matrix but to also test potential treatments for them,” said senior author Jeff Morgan, a Brown University professor of pathology and laboratory medicine, and of engineering.
That development is crucial, Morgan added, because there are no cures for fibrosis, and disorders of the extracellular matrix like Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and Marfan syndrome are in need of new treatments.
Framing the issue
Key to the functionality of the new model is that it does not include an external artificial “scaffold” for the cells; it uses a novel approach in which cells are harnessed to make their own natural extracellular matrix.
Most tissue engineering approaches rely on the use of protein or polymer scaffolds, explained study coauthor Ben Wilks, who earned a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at Brown and is now a research fellow at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. Conventional methods involve growing cells on plastic, while newer approaches embed cells in a collagen hydrogel to mimic the extracellular matrix. This new approach goes much further — it allows cells to synthesize and assemble their own human extracellular matrix.