Tissue engineering generates advances in health care

The next generation of advanced materials engineered for biomedical applications are creating new ways to improve the health and wellbeing of patients in need of reconstructive surgery.

At the University of Melbourne, researchers from the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering have been involved in successful projects aiding both soft tissue and bone regeneration. Associate Professor Andrea O’Connor leads the university’s Tissue Engineering Group, which has been involved in a recent tissue regeneration trial for patients recovering from breast cancer.

It was funded by a Victoria’s Science Agenda Investment Fund grant, and undertaken by a research consortium known as Neopec. Partners included the O’Brien Institute, a tissue engineering and microsurgery research centre which coordinated the project’s clinical trials, and the biomedical manufacturing firm Anatomics.

Associate Professor O’Connor’s team designed a rigid domed tissue regeneration chamber, which is temporarily inserted into the breast to hold space open for natural tissue regrowth. Design challenges included creating a highly biocompatible material to reduce rejection responses such as inflammation and scar tissue. The chamber also needed to be strong enough to withstand cracking or breaking.

The university investigated a range of candidate materials and manufactured implants for successful animal trials. However, in the clinical trials Anatomics provided customised chambers for each patient using an already approved biomedical material, rather than the new materials, which will be further developed and tested.

In the long term we’d like to have a biodegradable material, so that patients don’t need a second surgery to remove the chamber, says Associate Professor O’Connor. We want to regrow functional tissue seamlessly, rather than permanently introducing a foreign material.

Further research will continue with the O’Brien Institute, which has established a close working partnership with the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering over many years of collaboration.

Following the Neopec project Associate Professor O’Connor also worked with Anatomics to refine the production of a polymer it used for one of its other products — implants for craniofacial bone reconstruction. This involved finding a way to make the polymer more porous, while retaining sufficient strength, to allow better integration between the implant, adjacent bone and surrounding soft tissue.

A Victorian Government Technology Voucher helped to commercialise the polymer manufacturing technique, which the CSIRO was able to adapt to a surgical-grade polyethylene for use in medical implants. Anatomics now markets the new implants as PoreStar®, and it has been used in many successful surgeries with improved patient outcomes.

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