New materials will help the body repair damaged tissues and organs itself
Gravitation grant for Materials-Driven Regeneration programme.
Heart failure, kidney failure and musculoskeletal disorders – in the future, our bodies will be able to cure conditions like these themselves. Leading researchers from Eindhoven University of Technology, Maastricht University and from Utrecht (UMC Utrecht, Hubrecht Institute and Utrecht University) are to develop intelligent biomaterials which activate and control the body’s capacity for self-repair. Their research programme, Materials-Driven Regeneration (MDR), is to be awarded a Gravitation grant of €18.8 million. The award was announced by Minister of Education, Culture and Science Jet Bussemaker today, Monday 8 May. The universities themselves are investing a total of €6 million in the programme.
The number of people suffering from chronic diseases is increasing significantly, mainly due to our ageing population. This causes people a great deal of pain and leads to growing care costs. Regenerative medicine has the potential to truly cure chronic conditions. This revolutionary and relatively new branch of science can prompt the body to repair itself. A group of eminent materials scientists, cell biologists, tissue engineers and medical scientists in the Netherlands are to conduct joint in-depth research in order to make this a reality. Within the next 10 years, they hope to develop materials which trigger and orchestrate repair in the body, and then slowly dissolve and disappear from the body.
If this is to be possible, the new materials must fit seamlessly with the molecular machinery of our cells and adapt to changes. High on the wish-list of the researchers is an imitation of the biological extracellular matrix (ECM), a structure that holds the cells together and steers their development towards functional tissue. Different variants of this synthetic matrix will be required for different types of tissue.
The scientists want to explore how new tissue in the body forms in implanted templates that slowly dissolve. They will investigate this in the growth of new heart valves, new blood vessels, new kidneys, new bone and cartilage and intervertebral discs in the human body.
Part of the research programme will focus on the repair of complex organs and their function. This requires not only functional tissue, such as heart tissue or kidney tissue, but also blood vessels, for example. To this end, the scientists want to develop ‘building blocks’ that can be assembled in the body to form more complex structures. Amongst other things, the research focuses on repairing the heart after a heart attack and creating functional units for the kidney for patients with kidney failure. The researchers will also investigate repair of the complex interface of bone to adjacent tissue, such as cartilage and muscles.
Since the patients who will benefit from this are often elderly and suffer from other medical conditions, the researchers will try to steer the recovery processes in patients of different ages and with various illnesses. The aim is to tailor therapies to individual patients and their specific situations.
According to programme coordinator Professor Carlijn Bouten, the potential impact of the MDR programme is huge. 'We will be conducting long-term fundamental research at a high level into biomaterials that will enable us, in the future, to treat chronic conditions which currently we cannot cure. In the long term, we expect our work to spare many people from the pain of long-term illness. And it will also save society the costs that would otherwise have been needed for long-term care.'
The Netherlands' best scientists
The Materials-Driven Regeneration programme will be led by six eminent scientists, all of whom have many years of experience working on leading groundbreaking research projects. Professor Carlijn Bouten from Eindhoven University of Technology (cardiovascular regeneration) is coordinating the programme, which brings together the best scientists in the Netherlands in the fields of materials science (Bert Meijer, Eindhoven University of Technology), cell biology (Hans Clevers, Utrecht University/Hubrecht Institute), tissue engineering (Clemens van Blitterswijk, Maastricht University), nephrology and vascular biology (Marianne Verhaar, UMC Utrecht) and biomaterials (Pamela Habibovic, Maastricht University).
Next generation of scientists
As well as acquiring fundamental scientific knowledge, the programme aims to train the next generation of scientists in the field of regenerative medicine, says Bouten. 'Dutch research in this field is unique and world leading, and this is a position we are keen to retain.' Another important objective is to ensure that the findings of the programme are ultimately commercialised through companies, so patients, society and the economy can benefit from them.