Animal derived collagens, when used in cosmetic and reconstructive surgeries have limitations and the synthetically derived collagens which some research scientists have been able to grow in the laboratory, may be better alternatives. In their process, the researchers were able to grow the synthetic variety from a liquid in as little as one hour

Collagen, a protein with pervasive presence in human and animal bodies is an important constituent which connects and supports many body tissues such as skins, tendons, ligaments, cartilages, blood vessels. There are more than 25 types of collagens and they make up about 25% of total amount of proteins in the body.  In the field of reconstructive medical science, there is a great demand of collagens which are used in conjunction with stem cells in attempts to create new tissues for transplanting.

In the field of Orthopaedics, there have been remarkable treatments reported in which stem cells from bone marrow were mixed with collagen gel and applied between severely fractured bones. The bones were kept under gentle applied pressure for several months after which the bones got fused and were able to withstand great pressures.

Naturally occurring animal based collagens which are now used in reconstructive and cosmetic procedures have immunological risks and hence synthetic collagens without such risks hold promise as better alternatives.

The scientists at Rice’s Bio Science Research Collaborative of Rice University led by Jeffrey Hartgerink, Associate Professor of Chemistry and Bioengineering and assisted by the graduate students, have come up with a new method of growing synthetic collagens.

Hartgerink as the lead author of a new paper about their work in Nature Chemistry says “Our final product more closely resembles native collagen than anything that’s previously been made, and we make that material using a self-assembly process that is remarkably similar to processes found in nature.”

Collagen fibers exhibit complexities and it has not been easy to understand these complexities and recreate them synthetically

Collagen fibers are made of millions of peptides, the base proteins and they in turn form hydrogels, the three dimensional structures that trap and hold water. As per the Hartgerink, their supra-molecules, fibers and hydrogels form in a similar way as native collagen but they start with shorter peptides. In order to mimicking natural collagen’s self assembly process, the researchers had to struggle for several years in perfecting peptides design.

In a sign of initial success of the method, the enzyme that the body uses in breaking down the native collagen has also been seen to break down the synthetic collagen at similar speed. But still, as per the lead researcher, it is too early to predict success of the synthetic collagen in substituting animal derived collagen.

The scientists will have to establish if the cells may live and thrive in the synthetic collagen environment and if the latter can perform fully as the native collagen. The clinical trials, if required, are estimated to be about five years down the line.

[Source: This write up is sourced from the article “New Method to Grow Synthetic Collagen Unveiled: New Material May Find Use in Reconstructive Surgery, Cosmetics, Tissue Engineering” published in ScienceDaily (Sep. 8, 2011)]