A robotic shoulder could make it easier to grow usable human tissue
A robotic shoulder that presses, twists, and stretches lab-grown human tendon tissue could open the door to more successful tissue transplants.
Although tissue engineering is still a relatively new field, patients have had skin, cartilage, and windpipes implanted from human cell samples.
However, it has been more difficult to grow usable tendon cells in humans. These cells need to stretch and twist. Scientists have encouraged tendon cells and tissue engineered to grow and mature over the past 20 years by repeatedly stretching them in one way. This approach has not been able to produce functional tissue grafts that can be used clinically in humans.
A new study published in Nature Communications Engineering today shows how humanoid robotics can be used to create engineered tendon tissue more like the real thing.
” The clinical need is clearly present,” said Pierre-Alexis Mouthuy, University of Oxford, who was the leader of the team. “If we can create in vitro grafts that are of sufficient quality to be used in clinics, it would be really useful for improving patient outcomes.” Any improvement would be welcome .”
The first step was to redesign the chamber where the cells are kept, called a bioreactor. This allowed the robot to attach the chamber to a humanoid shoulder that can bend and pull cells the same way as musculoskeletal tissue.
While traditional bioreactors look like boxes, the team designed a flexible one where human fibroblast cells (elongated cells found within connective tissues) are grown on a soft-plastic scaffold suspended between two rigid blocks. They attached this chamber to the robotic shoulder, which spent half an hour a day over 14 days replicating the kinds of raises and rotation movements a human would make.
Afterwards, the cells in the bioreactor were found to have reproduced more rapidly than samples that had not been stretched, and they expressed genes differently–although the researchers don’t know yet how that would translate to the quality of the graft. The team will investigate how cells grown in the bioreactor compare to those in traditional stretch bioreactors.
“Using robots for tissue engineering creates much more realistic biomechanical stimulations, which I see as a breakthrough,” says Dana Damian, a lecturer at the University of Sheffield, who was not involved in the study. “The next step is proving that robot involvement is superior to conventional bioreactors The technology could be used for tissue production to repair tears in the Rotator Cuff Tendons, a common issue in the shoulder that can result from tendinitis or sports injuries. Typically, surgeons use sutures to reattach broken tendons to the bone, a repair that fails in around 40% of cases because of poor tissue healing. Tissue grafts that are grown using stimulation from humanoid robotics may heal more quickly.
Although the technique is not yet able to produce a functional tendon tissue transplant, the researchers believe that a similar approach could be used in other areas, such as creating better muscles or ligaments in bioreactors. The team suggests that robots could be customized to the patient’s physiology and produce tissue according to their own needs.
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.