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In the recently published book, Biomaterials Science: An Introduction to Materials in Medicine (third edition), pathologist Frederick Schoen, MD, PhD, executive vice chair of the Department of Pathology and director of the BWH Biomedical Research Institute Technology and Innovation Program, and fellow co-editors dedicate a chapter to biomimicry. They tip their hats to how processes and materials in nature—plants, animals and even humans—can be a “source of inspiration for design and modification of biomaterials and biomedical devices.”
Scientists examine nature in order to solve problems, a field known as biomimicry. Its disciples study and glean observations from nature to develop solutions to society’s most perplexing challenges in agriculture, transportation and other sectors. For scientists at BWH, nature has inspired some remarkable feats of innovation that have advanced patient care and medicine.
Jeffrey Karp, PhD, of the Division of Biomedical Engineering in the Department of Medicine, is one of these scientists. His approach to the natural world, and specifically to the animal kingdom, has breathed life into clever biomaterials and medical devices that will improve health care.
Thumbing through science articles about Karp’s biomedical inventions is like scanning the manifest of Noah’s Ark. There’s the microchip that can capture rare cancer cells, viruses and bacteria in blood, which was inspired by a jellyfish’s long, sticky tentacles. Then there are the surgical and neonatal bandages that are adhesive—even in wet environments—and prevent injury to a baby’s fragile skin. A gecko’s foot and spider’s web inspired these innovations.
Recently, Karp’s curiosity about porcupines led him to discover the stick-and-stay dynamics of their quills—new information that will be useful as bioengineers develop the next generation of medical needles and adhesives.
“We work on critical societal problems that can impact the quality of life of suffering patients,” said Karp. “When working toward solutions to medical problems that can be rapidly translated to the clinical setting, naturally we run into major challenges and barriers. The field of biomimicry can be used as inspiration to overcome some of these challenges. Evolution is by far the best problem solver.”
View a video of Karp’s porcupine work below.
It’s not only animals and sea creatures that fuel scientists’ imaginations. The architecture of the human body has also inspired bioengineers who design artificial tissues. Scientists have already developed sophisticated artificial tissues to replace weakened heart valves, as well as skin grafts to treat burn patients.
One of the key steps in making these tissues is to lay a scaffold around which cells can form and grow to create the desired tissue or organ. One type of scaffolding material scientists are exploring is hydrogels.
Ali Khademhosseini, PhD, MASc, also of Biomedical Engineering, has studied hydrogels extensively, and has used the medium to develop artificial tissues and organs that will one day be used to replace and repair damaged organs.
Hydrogels are modeled after the body’s own extracellular matrix. The extracellular matrix is the part of animal tissue that gives structural support to cells. Think of it as a gelatin dessert. Like fruit suspended in gelatin, the cells are suspended in the extracellular matrix.
Hydrogels mimic the extracellular matrix by providing not only structure for cells, but also maintaining a stable environment for them by reacting and adapting to changes in pH and temperature.
“By using advanced methods to control the chemistry, architecture and physical properties of hydrogels, it is possible to control the behavior of cells to instruct them on how to form new tissue,” said Khademhosseini. “Hydrogels have already proven to be useful. The medium has been used as a surface coating to prevent blood clots on medical implants, and it has also been used when engineering bone tissue.”
Putting Out the Flame
Taking a voyage beyond cells and tissues, one comes upon the miniscule molecules that regulate the complex biochemical processes that keep the body in balanced, working order.
Charles Serhan, PhD, director of BWH’s Center for Experimental Therapeutics and Reperfusion Injury, used the concept of pharmacological mimetics—creating drugs that mimic the body’s natural chemical pathways—to develop several new groups of therapeutics that fight excessive inflammation.
Serhan discovered molecules in the body responsible for activating several chemical pathways that shut off inflammation by stimulating a pro-resolving response. These molecules—which he named resolvins—are made naturally by the body from fatty molecules called omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (also found in cold-water fish and fish oils).
In preclinical and clinical models, these natural molecules have been found to resolve arthritic pain, stop colitis (inflammation of the large intestine), protect against viral eye infections and stimulate wound healing.
Now several pharmaceutical companies are developing and testing treatments based on Serhan’s resolvins to treat a wide range of inflammation-associated diseases, such as inflammation from human dry eye syndrome.
“Knowing about the body’s own pro-resolving methods against inflammation has had far-reaching implications because resolving acute inflammation was thought for hundreds of years to be a passive process in the body,” said Serhan. “The resolvin molecules we have discovered may potentially shape medicine by providing a new class of drugs that activate pathways to resolve inflammation and pain, as well as help clear infections.”