Researchers at Bath are exploring how their work in regenerative medicine could contribute to the future health of Paralympic athletes and patients with disabilities.
The University’s Centre for Regenerative Medicine is carrying out research that could be used to promote healing and regeneration following sports injuries in elite disabled athletes, or to assist injured military personnel.
As a legacy from the Paralympics, the research is to be extended so that all patients with disabilities are able to reap the benefits of engaging in sports and exercise, and will also have an impact on Olympic athletes and the promotion of the health of the general population.
Regenerative medicine is a fast emerging interdisciplinary field of research, and clinical applications focus on the repair, replacement or regeneration of cells, tissues, or organs.
It uses a combination of approaches including soluble molecules, gene therapy, stem cell transplantation, tissue engineering, and the reprogramming of cell types to address healing and repair.
Professor Cheryll Tickle, Director of the Centre for Regenerative Medicine, said: “We hope that our research will stimulate interesting discussion about the potential role of regenerative medicine in elite sports and more generally in “Sports for All” programmes.
“Bath is proud of its link with Paralympics GB and this has opened new research opportunities for the Centre to work directly with elite athletes.”
A selection of current research projects
Perfect wound repair – lessons from embryos
Professor Will Wood, Department of Biology & Biochemistry, is studying tissue repair in embryos in order to understand how it happens and potentially replicate this to repair adult wounds.
Tissue repair in embryos is rapid, efficient and perfect, and does not leave a scar – an ability which is lost as development proceeds. While an adult wound in the skin heals through cells from the outmost layer (the epidermis) crawling forwards over the wound to close the gap, in an embryonic wound, the epidermis is closed by contraction of the proteins actin and myosin in a movement that resembles a ‘purse string’ pulling together.
One key difference between embryonic and adult repair may explain why one heals perfectly and the other scars. When adults are wounded, they raise a robust inflammatory response but such a response is absent in the embryo.
Professor Wood is currently carrying out genetic studies of inflammation in the fruitfly, Drosophila, with the aim of identifying novel ways to control inflammatory cell migration and thereby improve adult healing in humans.
Stem cell breakthrough
Professors Melanie Welham, Department of Pharmacy & Pharmacology, and Professor David Tosh, Department of Biology & Biochemistry, have discovered a new way to create precursor liver cells from stem cells.
Stem cells are able to develop into more specialised cells and scientists believe they have huge potential to treat diseases or injuries that don’t currently have a cure. This significant breakthrough could also have an impact on the testing of new medicines.
The current method for developing precursor liver cells involves many different steps and uses various biological agents. The scientists have developed a more simple process to create precursor liver cells during this on-going programme of research, allowing the scale on which they can be created to be increased.
The fundamental principles that have been uncovered by this research will be applicable to producing precursor cells from other tissues including those frequently injured in athletes such as muscle, tendon and bone.
Growing human tissues and organs in the laboratory
Professor Julian Chaudhuri, Dr Marianne Ellis, Department of Chemical Engineering, and Dr Paul De Bank, Department of Pharmacy and Pharmacology, are developing methods and techniques to enable scientists and engineers to create human tissue outside of the body.
Their approach, known as tissue engineering, takes human cells and combines them with a plastic scaffold material on which the cells grow and form tissue-like structures that could eventually be used to treat patients.
This research is crucial to overcome the deficit in tissues and organs available for transplantation, and these lab-built tissues could also be used to reduce the number of animals used in drug toxicology testing.
The researchers are now working with colleagues in the Centre for Regenerative Medicine and the Department for Health to determine how these tissue engineering techniques could be used to treat injured athletes.
Injury prevention in elite disability sport
Dr James Bilzon, Department for Health, has paired up with colleagues from the Universidade Estadual Campinas in Sao Paulo, who work closely with the Brazilian Paralympic Committee, to establish the type, nature and incidence of injuries experienced by elite disabled athletes, and to determine a strategy for injury prevention.
The research has involved surveillance to quantify the size and nature of injuries, followed by further in-depth epidemiological study to understand risk factors, and the identification of those factors which could be modified or controlled. The team now plans to evaluate controlled interventions to establish cause and effect, giving advice on how to implement training policies in such a way as to prevent injuries.
Dr Bilzon is looking to replicate this research in the UK and is in discussions with the English Institute of Sport to establish an injury monitoring programme with elite disabled athletes.
In another project, Dr Bilzon is working closely with the Ministry of Defence to study the rehabilitation of military victims from the front line whose injuries have resulted in amputation. The study aims to test different forms of exercise rehabilitation and different types of prosthetic device within a population of amputees to understand the efficiency and effort required to regain mobility and independence.
The results of the research will feed back into the development of novel devices and applications, in collaboration between the MOD’s Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre and the University’s DisAbility Sport and Health (DASH) group, Centre for Regenerative Medicine, Centre for Pain Research and Bath Institute of Medical Engineering.
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