By Leo Romero
From the SAMOHI Helyx Chapter
Biomaterial engineering is the culmination of scientific and engineering principles to design and develop innovative solutions for treating medical-based issues. This is quite a complicated concept, so let’s break it down. Biomaterials are made of either natural or synthetic material, and are created with the purpose of promoting the ability to heal, restoring parts of the body, supporting the body, or replacing specific parts of the human body. Biomaterials are specialized to each patient's circumstances. Examples of biomaterials range from a hydrogel to larger hip joint implants. Biomaterials can be bio-absorbable, meaning they can be gradually absorbed by the body after successfully completing their specialized purpose.
The potential of biomaterials took an upward turn after the introduction of stem cells. This milestone gave way to tissue engineering and the concept of regenerative medicine, which works to restore damaged tissue and organs. Stem cells are non-specialized cells that have the potential to become specialized cells (through the process of differentiation), such as tissue cells or bone cells. Using biomaterials, scientists and engineers are able to control the differentiation process of stem cells and produce the specialized cell of their desire. The National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) currently funds research that involves combining silk material and tropoelastin, a protein that provides the elasticity for human tissue, in order to create a biomaterial that mirrors the structure and function of natural human tissue. Stem cells are then placed in an environment with this biomaterial, and because the biomaterial mirrors human tissue so closely, the stem cells believe the biomaterial is actually human tissue. Therefore, the stem cells go through the process of differentiation and become specialized human tissue cells.
NIBIB also funds many other biomaterial research projects, including one currently being designed by a group that is engineering a bio-absorbable stent made of zinc. Stents are small tubes inserted into hollow parts of the body, such as blood vessels, in order to keep them open. Because stents are made of materials like metal and plastic, and stay permanently in the body, they can cause long-term effects like bleeding, blood clots, and narrowing of vessels. However, the bio-absorbable stent gradually wears away over time, which helps avoid the effects of permanent stents.
As for the future of this field, while there are many options, there are three distinct directions in which biomaterials have the potential for great achievements: immunomodulation (changing the immune response), injectable biomaterials, and supramolecular biomaterials (complexes of molecules that have the potential to surpass what molecules can do on their own). Immunomodulating biomaterials have the potential to treat chronic diseases such as type 1 diabetes, injectable biomaterials are able to deliver needs to the body—whether it is medicine, genetic material, or proteins—by avoiding the immune response, and supramolecular biomaterials have the potential to become ideal materials for treating injury/disease. The field of biomaterials and biomaterial engineering is constantly growing, and it’s foreseeable that it’ll have a significant spot in the STEM arena in the near future. Q: What is biomaterial engineering? A: Biomaterial engineering uses both principles of science and engineering to solve medical-based problems. These problems are solved by developing innovative biomaterials, which can be made of natural or synthetic material. Biomaterials are very specialized based on the patient's circumstances and can have many different purposes, including the enhanced ability to heal, bodily support, or even body part replacements. Q: What are some examples of biomaterials? A: Biomaterials are very diverse; therefore, there are many different types of biomaterials. Some examples of innovative biomaterials include hip joint replacements, hydrogels that can minimize pain when changing dressings on burn victims, silk-tropoelastin biomaterials that mirror structure and function of human tissue and induce differentiation of stem cells to become specialized tissue cells, and zinc stents that are bio-absorbable and therefore may avoid problems caused by permanent stents.
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