WHAT ARE BIOMATERIALS?
Cells come together to make structures called tissues, which come together to make organs. Biomaterials use cells or synthetic materials as the building blocks to restore or repair damaged tissues or organs. In the same way an architect needs to use the correct materials to build the house they designed; a tissue engineer needs to use the right cells to build the tissue “scaffold” – a key component of engineered tissues. Cells behave differently on their own compared to when they are close together in a tissue. Therefore, by supporting the growth of cells placed onto the scaffold, researchers can work with cells that behave similarly to how they would in the human body. The ability of tumours to grow and spread uncontrollably to distant sites (metastasis) relies on their innate and abnormal communication with neighbouring cells, so these tissue scaffolds give cancer researchers a better idea of how cancer cells function in humans as part of a tumour mass, rather than as individual cells.
What does it take to be a tissue engineer?
To be a tissue engineer, you would be expected to hold a PhD degree in biomedical engineering or a related field such as chemical or materials engineering. This ensures you have a strong technical background to understand the principles of engineering for biological application that underpin this field. Required expertise may include fundamental cell biology, advanced engineering design, and computer programming. Tissue engineers must work well in a team to collaboratively engineer and optimize new biomaterials to restore, maintain, improve, or replace tissues to patients.
Where is the field of biomaterials heading?
The field of biomaterials continues to develop. Researchers from diverse academic backgrounds in biology and engineering are starting to enter the field and are constantly finding new areas to apply their knowledge of tissue engineering. One of these areas is the use of stem cells, a special form of cell that can change into a range of different cell types. Tissue engineers are currently using a type of stem cell that can change into any tissue type, and researchers are learning how to manipulate these stem cells to treat a variety of diseases. In the context of cancer, advances in the field of tissue engineering may allow researchers to look at the effect of new cancer drugs on cells that are more closely representative of live patient tumours. This can give a better idea of how effective these new treatments may be and if they are safe enough to be used to treat patients.