Published: May 1, 2018 By

There’s no one in the world quite like you.

It’s a sweet sentiment for greeting cards and love songs, but when it comes to treatment of disease or injury, your individuality may be less of a benefit and more of a burden. The complexities that make you who you are could result in medications, surgeries or health care devices that treat the symptoms but may not address your specific causes.

At CU Boulder, researchers see this not as a cruel reality but as a grand opportunity. Here, engineers are inventing novel biomaterials able to decrease pain and extend life when the body goes awry. And they’re doing it in a way that can be perfectly tailored to each individual’s needs, eliminating the guesswork of diagnosis and treatment.

In the coming years, researchers will combine expertise from numerous fields to bridge the possibilities of precision biomaterials with the needs experienced by millions of individuals around the world, said Professor Kristi Anseth of chemical and biological engineering, who’s leading the interdisciplinary research effort.

“What we’re trying to do is design the next generation of biomaterials that can play that role when our bodies fail us,” Anseth said.

Kristi Anseth and grad students working in a lab.REPLACE AND REPAIR

A relatively new area of study, biomaterials are already making a huge impact on people’s lives. Most people know someone who has had a knee or hip replacement, a cavity filled or cataract surgery to insert an artificial lens into the eye. Simple implanted materials and devices that function like the body are already miracles for the ailing.

At CU, researchers are probing further, into the realm of regenerative medicine.

“What we’re thinking of is both short- and long-term, how can we take the advancements in biomaterials and bring it to that next level where it’s not just about having synthetic replacement body parts, but how can we regrow them?” Anseth said. “So it’s not a replacement, but we help the body to repair.”

Over the last 20 years, Anseth and colleagues have rapidly advanced the development of hydrogels, jello-like substances packed with stem cells engineered to morph into the desired cell type—bone, cartilage or skin, for example.

Getting these incredible materials into clinicians’ hands and patients’ bodies requires help from experts in numerous fields: chemistry, biology, imaging, characterization and analysis, advanced prototyping, computer science and beyond.

In the lab of Professor Bob McLeod, director of CU’s Materials Science and Engineering Program and a specialist in optical fabrication, researchers invented a new type of 3D printer that can print miniscule scaffolds to provide stability for the cell-laden hydrogels as they grow into living tissue.

The potential impacts of these biomaterials are innumerable: regenerating skin for burn victims, blood vessels for heart bypass candidates or cartilage for overzealous athletes.

“That’s super exciting, and if you’ve done snowboarding, you’re going to like this,” McLeod said. “But I think the real dream of personalized medicine going forward is to think about, what more complicated thing could you do?”

THE NEXT FRONTIER Precision biomaterials may be fabricated using basic porous scaffolds or may be 3D-printed to fit the defect of a specific patient.

As regenerative medicine shows success, researchers are dreaming of more sophisticated formulations. Could you regrow heart muscle that beats in time with surrounding tissue or recreate a functional pancreas that can produce insulin, eliminating the need for daily injections by 30 million Americans?

Could you get the body to regrow the specific brain cells that make dopamine, a function lost in people with Parkinson’s disease?

Anseth said she’s intrigued by the possibilities of biomaterials that not only eliminate side effects but also respond to biological cues to treat, prevent or reverse the spread of disease.

“How we can make biomaterials that can respond to a specific person’s body or can be loaded with a drug but only release it in the right spot, in response to the right signals?” she said. “It might be different for your melanoma cancer versus my melanoma cancer, so making it very specific.”

The field may also trend toward better diagnostics. Drug-makers could use miniature versions of your tissue, or organs-on-a-chip, to test medicines outside the body, honing in on the exact cocktail that will work best for your disease and ending animal testing in the process.

The advances happening here may help millions of people across the globe by providing answers to a basic question: how do we extend and enhance life?

“When I think about where engineers can have impact, we all look at how we can impact quality of life,” Anseth said. “At a fundamental level, we’re motivated in our research theme by a desire to improve people's health.”

Illustration by James Vaughnan