Creating the future of textiles: Making an artificial tendon

Researchers at the University of Bolton, U.K., as part of a consortium of research institutions, are set to produce artificial fibers that could be used to repair or replace injured human tendons in the future.

The task at hand

The objectives of this multi-disciplinary project are to fabricate, stabilize and effectively functionalize three-dimensional collagen-resilin composite scaffold to match the properties of native tendons. In layperson’s terms, the consortium will be making artificial tendon fibers made of specially designed smart materials, including fibrous proteins, such as collagen. These would then be woven or braided into the body, replacing or repairing damaged tendons.

Despite much reported success in recent years, there are still many challenges in the engineering and biology of collagen to bring it to clinical practice. For example, the fabricated scaffolds are characterised by reduced elasticity (elastic fibers, otherwise present in native tendons, are removed during collagen extraction and purification steps). This work is intended to incorporate resilin (elatomeric natural protein) into the three-dimensional fibrous composite with the view of restoring the native tendons fibro-elastic properties, which are necessary to withstand applied physical and mechanical loads in situ. Furthermore, the collagen fibers that have been produced to date are either in relatively short lengths or are at best very limited in length.

Part of Bolton’s task in this regard is to design, build and test a production system that would potentially produce collagen fibers in continuous form, something that has not been possible to date due to the highly fragile nature of collagen fibers.

How they’ll accomplish it

Dr. Mohsen Miraftab, who is leading the project at the University of Bolton, U.K., says the team will have to make collagen fiber into a long, continuous form—longer than a meter. Making collagen into a fiber is not a new thing; producing fibers “as long as you like” has not been done, he says.

A machine will have to be produced to do this. “It doesn’t exist,” Miraftab says, “so I’m building the machine.” The machine itself will be “generic,” he says, capable of producing elongated fibers from other materials, other than collagen.

The developed production unit will also be able to run faster than has been available to date making it commercially viable and economically justified. Once fully developed, the production unit would be able to accommodate other modifications including hollow fiber production, multi spinneret extrusion and encapsulation of self-contained active and/or inactive ingredients.

The commissioned unit would potentially be suitable for spinning a whole range of materials that have similar processing difficulties to collagen where, in particular, continuous production has been a major setback.

What this could mean

Tendons are the fibrous bands that connect muscle to bone. They are extremely strong in the context of the body, but once damaged are difficult to treat or repair. Tendon injuries are common in sports and physical exercise and can leave athletes sidelined for months. With these new fibers, there is hope of restoring the person who has suffered the injury to good health.

If they are successful, these longer fibers, once they are produced in a continuous form, will have a number of advantages including uniformity in fiber quality, consistency in fiber parameters, i.e., linear density, tensile properties, elasticity and post production ease of handling, and thus fabrication. Uses beyond the one specified in this grant are possible, says Miraftab, with other materials developed for other applications.

The consortium

The University of Bolton will be working with the National University of Ireland (NUI), Galway and Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Around 250,000 Euros will be allocated to Bolton. Two fully-funded researchers and a senior researcher from the University of Bolton have already been seconded to Vornia Ltd. in Ireland

Vornia is a spin-off company from NUI that designs and develops biomaterials for medical purposes and commercialization. The consortium also includes NWtexnet, a membership organization which provides support and guidance to technical textile companies in the North West and U.K.

The universities secured funding from the Marie Curie Sponsorship Program, a European-wide research grants system that is available to universities from any nationality or area of research.

“Given the importance of such an investigation and practical application of its outcome, success of this research could lead to further pan-European project partnerships for the University,” says Miraftab.

A focus on smart materials

The University of Bolton is a research center for smart materials. It pioneers areas such as the biomedical applications of hybrid biomaterials made from sea algae and crab shells for wound dressing applications. It has also developed the world’s first photovoltaic-piezoelectric fiber, which can harness electricity from movement, such as wind and waves, as well as the energy from the sun.

Safety and Technical Products (S+TP), a division of IFAI, represents the interests of the textile industry in safety, protective, interactive, medical and other high-tech applications.

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