Human collagen synthesised

A team of scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison has discovered a method of creating human collagen in the lab.

Collagen’s tough, fibrous proteins are the main constituent of cartilage, tendons and ligaments. Its also plays a role in bone and teeth, and supports the skin.

Animal collagen, usually derived from cows, is used in reconstructive surgery following burns or severe wounds. It is also used in cosmetic surgery. However, there is a risk of transmitting pathogens or stimulating an autoimmune response.

Researchers have been attempting to synthesise collagen for a number of years. They have been able to create short snippets of the protein but to date have been unable to synthesise the long fibres necessary for medical applications.

The team found a way to modify the ends of the collagen snippets and make them self-assemble into the long fibres required. The synthetic collagen can be made even longer and stronger than found in nature. However, they cannot yet control the process sufficiently to construct fibres to a specified size.

The synthesised fibres could be used to “solder” over wounds to encourage healing. But the strength and size of the tubes, even narrower than nanotubes, means they could also have medical nanotechnology applications.

Microscopic sensors could be made from the fibres combined with other materials and implanted in humans to detect the state of a condition. For example, coated with gold or silver, human collagen-based implantable electric sensors might quickly alert a diabetic to falling insulin levels. Alternatively, equipped with molecules to recognise specific pathogens, a sensor could warn of infection.