Inventors: Dr. Alex Justin & Dr. Athina Markaki, Engineering
Mentor: Dr. Karin Schmitt

The research team in Engineering has built up a wide range of expertise in producing collagen tubes de novo in the lab. Once seeded with cells, such tubes can serve as a three-dimensional cell culture platform for disease modelling, drug testing, and biological studies, but also as a much needed source of tissue to replace diseased or damaged conduits in patients. Initial studies looked at creating a replacement mouse bile duct, but the process has more recently been adapted to produce human-sized tubes. This work is carried out in collaboration with the Stem Cell Institute (Ludovic Vallier) and the Department of Surgery (Kourosh Saeb-Parsy, Fotis Sampaziotis).

The tissue-specific applications for these tubes are wide-ranging, including gastrointestinal, urinary tract, respiratory, cardiovascular, reproductive and neural surgery. Anywhere in the body that tubular structures are present could, in principle, be treated with these artificially-constructed tubes.

The densified collagen tubes are mechanically robust, and can be fabricated to a range of diameters and wall thicknesses. They can be produced as straight tubes or as branched structures, and also with a textured internal surface to mimic tissue-specific structures (e.g. villi of the intestine). The tubes can be seeded with living cells both on the surface and in the bulk of the scaffold. It is even possible to produce collagen tubes with a capillary-like structure inside the tube walls. The collagen material used is bioactive and biocompatible, and the tubes are being tested in pig experiments as replacement bile ducts.

Currently, the leading approach involves the use of decellularised scaffolds from animal donors. However this approach is limited by donor availability and scaffold variability between donors, and brings risks of transmitting pathogens. Further, decellularised scaffolds cannot be custom-made to consumer requirements. Scaffolds made using synthetic materials, while cheap, do not reconstitute the extra-cellular niche and have a limited cellular interaction.

The challenge for the i-Team is to investigate the potential markets for these tubes, focusing on life sciences applications, and advise the inventors on which markets to tackle and in which order.