Submitted by UniversityofBath t3_11trp4s in IAmA

When tissues in our body become damaged, either through disease or trauma, surgery is usually enough to repair / close the wound to prevent further harm. However, there are instances when this is not enough, resulting in discomfort or limited function for the patient. Repairing the wound using artificial materials is one way to address this issue. 

My research group create materials based on nature’s designs. The idea is to mimic some of the characteristics that make up healthy tissue in our body; the architecture and the chemistry, so that the body won’t reject the material. Creating these materials is complex enough. We then try and add in cues so that cells will interact with the materials and be encouraged to repair the wound. We call these ‘smart’ materials, and we use them to build new healthy tissue for patients and wrap around devices so they aren’t rejected once implanted. You can read about some of our materials and how we're using them here..

Feel free to send me a question on the materials we’re designing and the work we’re currently doing. 

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belac1848 t1_jckpfrv wrote

Hello, Nazia, and thank you for joining!

Question for you: With all the fringe group hubub surrounding "micro chipping" in COVID vaccines and such, has your research received any scrutiny, harassment, disapproval from those who worry about "surveillance" and the likes? Don't support their stance at all, but curious if the whole idea of putting new technology into the human body has received significant push back, especially from online groups, in the last, say, five years or so.


UniversityofBath OP t1_jd3ju68 wrote

Hello! An interesting question. My work is designed to help patients deal with problems that surgery often can't fix. The materials I create are tailored to address specific diseases or tissue damage to restore function for that patient and reduce pain/ discomfort. The materials are designed to mimic biological tissue and there are no microchips involved in the process and therefore reduced chance of 'surveillance'. In fact we take active steps so the body can't tell the difference between healthy tissue and our materials! I guess all new technologies and ideas receive some type of push back but this is why we include the 'end user' in our processes.


PeanutSalsa t1_jckk3oy wrote

How does the lifespan of these materials measure up to organic materials of the same use already existent in the body?


UniversityofBath OP t1_jckkgyb wrote

Hello! Some of the materials we create are designed to last (for example some I'm designing to create robot parts for humans) while others are designed to attract the cells and degrade as the cells take over (giving them the initial nourishment and room to grow and take over the space).


lil_kreen t1_jckmv8z wrote

There was some medically inadvisable biohackery going on with magnet capsules implanted into fingertips I remember from a while back. Thereafter reporting being able to feel electrical fields as they move/vibrate. A similar sort of neuroplasticity being the compass belt that pops up every so often. Is it possible to make a medically safe magnetic materials that could produce similar effects with enough responsivity where the brain can pick up and adapt to the stimuli?


UniversityofBath OP t1_jcknccc wrote

Hello. I'm not sure! I have never worked with magnetic materials but know that magnets have been used medically (externally) for example to control small robots that deliver drugs into the back of your eye. The brain and recreating electrical signals is very far from my research field I'm afraid!


OneLostOstrich t1_jcnh9y7 wrote

Fascinating work. I'm surprised that there aren't more questions.

Can you share the latest in the process of restoring nerve damage or encouraging nerves to grow to a tissue or implanted material?

What about encouraging growth of collagen producing cells that decline as we age? Also, encouraging satellite cell division and promotion of apoptosis in cells that are not functioning normally.


UniversityofBath OP t1_jd3m06e wrote

Hello! Thank you for some great questions. I'll break them down in my response;

- nerve regeneration: I actually did do some work on this. I grew nerve cells on my materials and tested the network by sending a signal from one end and seeing whether it would be received on the other end of the network (spoiler: it did!). Many different groups are working on this area and it could mean great things for example for Alzheimer's patients but also for people who have suffered nerve damage in other ways.

- collagen production: most of my materials are designed to recreate the space around the cells. Collagen proteins can also be 'woven' into this space and we can attract cells to that space to carry on the process (it is essentially what I try to do but with more than just collagen). Regarding the ageing tissue: it's an area that both the healthcare and the beauty industry are interested in and whoever gets there first will be inundated with requests i'm sure!

- apoptosis: Yes there are ways that we can induce cell death. Normally this is done by tuning the delivery method so none of the healthy cells die in the process. This type of targeted delivery aligns well with incorporation of drugs for example.


CuriousRedPandaBear t1_jckecmh wrote

Hi Nazia, thank you for sharing your research. It's really interesting work. Are your materials being used in patients currently and how effective have they been. Also how do you add 'cues' so cells will interact with them?


UniversityofBath OP t1_jckf4y5 wrote

Hello! My materials are not currently being used in patients. It takes years to develop and refine the designs so they are suitable for implantation. This is then followed by strict regulatory tests and approvals before we go anywhere near a patient. All new healthcare technologies and drugs that are developed have to go through this process. My designs are still 'early stage' though I have been doing significant tests on them.

Regarding the second part of your question: cells decide how they will respond to materials by detecting physical and chemical changes around them. I study what would normally be present in healthy tissue and try to replicate these in my materials.


CuriousRedPandaBear t1_jckifo5 wrote

Thank you! Where did you interest in this start?


UniversityofBath OP t1_jckiwx4 wrote

It was an accidental journey. I did my first degree in forensic science and came across a project that was trying to recreate the fingerprint ridges. I thought that was interesting and as I started to explore I realised you could create more than fingerprints. I started using materials that are readily available and then eventually landed on making my own.


FlattopMaker t1_jcoq1kv wrote

has your team come across instances where the organism is learning from or adapting to the engineered/implanted materials to create a novel healing mechanism or an improved healing rate due to artificial intervention?


UniversityofBath OP t1_jd3nt6v wrote

Yes! We give the tissues the initial fabric of instruction but once the right cells are attracted to the space they take over and start growing in a space that they didn't occupy previously.


Double_DD_250 t1_jckg5v9 wrote

Hi Nazia, your research sounds very interesting. What kind of "smart" materials are you currently using? How can you avoid triggering an immune response once these materials come in contact with the body?


UniversityofBath OP t1_jckgqy7 wrote

Hi! Tissues in the body are composed of many different types of proteins. One of the designs I am currently working on replicates some of the ways nature puts these proteins together. By copying nature's 'design rules' we've been able to create our own novel materials. So the short answer to this long explanation is they are protein based (though not all of my designs are. It entirely depends on what we're trying to do).

An excellent question regarding the immune response. Part of this is trying to match what our body can already tolerate though this is difficult! My materials have shown low immune response so far though we are trying to probe that further currently and see if we can modify our materials to 'calm down' an inflammatory response too.


FlattopMaker t1_jcopxli wrote

Thank you for this AMA! In addition to calming an inflammatory response, has your team considered design rules to release pharmaceuticals that mimic natural immune responses for localized immune activity?


Annual-Mud-987 t1_jckgbzu wrote

Hi! Could these smart materials have any impact on organ transplants? It seems like it could be a helpful way to prevent the body rejecting the new organ if you're able to mimic the chemistry of the body


UniversityofBath OP t1_jckgz1g wrote

Hi! Absolutely! Our vision is to one day be able to grow new tissues and maybe even organs one day for patients, using these materials and the patient's own cells. That would certainly reduce organ transplant lists....


FlattopMaker t1_jd3saka wrote

within the next ten years, what is the anticipated wait time to grow a particular vascular tissue using the specific materials your lab makes, from patient consent to implantation?

do you see any cooperative possibilities with research groups that focus on nerve, limb and tissue regeneration?


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Silver_Guarantee_764 t1_jckl52d wrote

Hi! I'm curious how this would end up going through clinical trials? Would it go through the same path of healthy then injured or would it go straight into injured?


UniversityofBath OP t1_jcklxws wrote

Hello! I am not a clinical trial expert (though I often lean on wonderful colleagues who are!) but if we got to that stage with our materials (after rigorous tests in a laboratory environment) the clinical trials would test for both safety and efficacy. The design of what representative population group to test on would be the job of the trial design expert. It would also depend on whether we have designed a material that targets a specific disease or whether it's designed to repair injuries (blunt force trauma).

I would also add that different countries have slightly different pathways to design clinical trials. So what's FDA approved may not necessarily be EMA approved (European equivalent).


Ok-Feedback5604 t1_jclx2k8 wrote

What do you think we can do to make the implant process affordable and accessible to all?


UniversityofBath OP t1_jd3k8bw wrote

Hello! A very good question! Once we have the technology fine tuned the next step is 'scale up' to deal with exactly what you say: increased quantity at lower costs. Partnering with industry is often something we do once we're sure we have something worth scaling up.

As the materials are novel the very start of the process, the design optimisation, can be quite costly.


Redleaded t1_jclyrgt wrote

Hi Nazia, this sounds really interesting. What fabrication methods are you using to create these materials?


UniversityofBath OP t1_jd3kl4j wrote

Hello. This depends on the materials we are designing. For the protein-based materials we are using a technique called 'solid-phase synthesis'. Essentially we start with a solid bead and build our residues/ amino acids (the components that make up a peptide) one by one onto that bead, rather like a pearl necklace! Once we have finished 'synthesising' we remove the 'string of pearls' (the peptide) from the bead.


Redleaded t1_jd966go wrote

Ah thats really cool, I had never heard of that before. Out
of interest are you familiar with electrospinning.


dee615 t1_jcn8hd1 wrote

Very interesting! Are you familiar with the work of Dr.Neri Oxman, formerly of MIT?


jutrmybe t1_jcnyoic wrote

Hi Nazia, this is amazing. Do these materials have potential for regenerative medicine and pain management within our lifetimes? I assume the clinical side of your research is partnered with surgeons, but do you regularly work with other medical professionals? What has been the most difficult organ to spoof? What kind of credentials and degrees does one need to get into this field, and how do you suggest someone start?


UniversityofBath OP t1_jd3mxa4 wrote

Hello! Absolutely. Biomaterials are already being implanted into patients to grown new tissue. There's a great TED talk by Anthony Atala which gives a good overview of what we're doing in that space (there has been significant progress made since then in fact). One cool thing to note is that as Anthony is giving his TED talk, he's 3D printing a new kidney in the background....

I do work with medical professionals, and roboticists, and engineers, and chemists, biologists, device regulation experts, clinical partners...the list goes on! It's rarely a 1 person show!

A single organ may actually not be the main issue. The issue is the space in which that organ sits in and what else it interacts with (soft tissues, tissues that expand, bone, nerves, blood vessels etc). Creating something that keeps all those partners happy is difficult!

You would need university level qualifications- an undergraduate degree in chemistry/ biology or both and at least a Master's too. I did a PhD also which laid the foundation of my career.


PercentageGreat7613 t1_jcnyu0j wrote

What have u learned lately that is most interesting to you?


UniversityofBath OP t1_jd3n98f wrote

Ooooh that's an interesting question! Actually something I was teaching on close we're getting to creating something that could solve a lot of problems in one go (robot muscles!) Imagine creating tiny muscles that allow you to smile again and restore your identity to large muscles that help you stand again!


aeronagon t1_jcor3he wrote

Would it be possible to regrow a foreskin with this technology?


UniversityofBath OP t1_jd3neng wrote

We can regrow most tissues with our technology. The key is trying to match the chemical, biological and physical components of the tissue we're trying to recreate.