Heart tissue is being recreated in laboratories at the University of Pisa through the development of a polymeric support that can regenerate infarction of the myocardium. This is the result (still partial but of great importance) of research carried out by the 'Bio-materials' group from the Department of Chemical Engineering. Their work was presented at the recent European 'bio-materials' Congress held in Dublin. The event aroused a strong interest in the subject; so much so that it was reported on the front page of 'The Irish Times'.
This support consists of highly innovative materials based on a combination of two organic polymers – alginate (which is a polysaccheride extracted from seaweed) and collagen (which is the main structural protein of the human body) - and a synthetic polymer able to provide the bio-artificial system deriving from it with the elasticity necessary for sustaining cardiac activity. The results obtained so far are very promising since they have demonstrated a high degree of similarity with the elasticity of natural tissue.
Research on cardiac tissue is one of the subjects of the activities of the European 'BIOSCENT' project established via collaboration between the University of Pisa and the 'Sorin Biomedica Cardio Srl', a leading company in the cardiovascular sector. Coordinated by Elisabetta Rosellini, a young post graduate researcher, this project has an international feel about it, for eleven universities and four companies from eight countries are involved (as well as Italy the countries included are: Denmark, France, Germany, Holland, the UK, the Czech Republic and Romania).
A multidisciplinary project employing engineers, doctors and scientists, it has been financed through the 7th Framework Programme of the European Commission for a total of 6.5 million euros to be subdivided in the five year period of 2009 – 2013.
The aim of 'BIOSCENT' is the development of scaffold multifunctional polymers which, thanks to the bio-activity provided by the presence of 'signal' molecules, are able to control cardiovascular (myocardium vessels and valves) tissue development starting with adult stem cells. Two diverse strategies are currently being investigated. The first regards the in vitro engineering, which involves the cultivation of cells on polymer scaffolds in a bioreactor and the subsequent implantation of the newly formed tissue as a real prothesis. The second aims at the in vivo engineering, whereby the supporting polymeric structure is inserted into the patient's body where it recruits the stem cells and guides their growth towards the appropriate tissue. This latter approach is particularly attractive for the bio-medical industry since stem cell manipulation in the lab is not necessary and thus all ethical problems and connected technical difficulties are eliminated.
In the first two years of activity, scientists working at this project concentrated on identifying the fundamental components of engineered tissue, i.e. polymeric material, the 'signal' molecules able to guide tissue growth and the sources of more adaptable adult stem cells. At the same time, dynamic culture environments were designed, the so called bio-reactors, whereby tissue will be able to be cultivated before being implanted. The attention now turns towards the integration of these components for the development of engineered biometrical scaffolds, able to promote in vitro and/or in vivo regeneration of myocardium blood vessels and cardiac valves.
"Cardiovascular diseases," recalls Elisabetta Rosellini, a thirty year old Pisan woman with a First Class Honours 'cum laude' degree in Biomedical Engineering and a PhD in Bio-materials, "are the main cause of death and hospitalisation today in industrialised countries. They are the prime cause of death for people over the age of 65. This is most probably destined to worsen in the near future due to the progressive ageing of the population. The interest aroused by our research, which could offer new therapeutic opportunities for the repair and regeneration of damaged cardiovascular tissue, is therefore immediately understandable, both for its clinical implications and for the bio-medical market."