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Mending broken hearts with tissue engineering

PhD student Marcus Johns travelled to São Paulo to see how their research could help him develop novel, sustainable materials for tissue engineering.

PhD student Marcus John
Marcus Johns

Marcus' research could be applied to mend organs such as the heart. Coronary heart disease has the highest mortality rate of any single disease. This is because we are currently unable to repair the damage caused to the cardiac muscle leading to its permanent loss.

Tissue engineering aims to resolve this problem by developing cell-based remedies that could one day repair damaged organs in our body.

Sustainable materials from shellfish and fungi

Marcus, based at our Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies (CSCT), has been developing novel scaffold materials to support cells based on cellulose. Cellulose is a biocompatible material that is already used in medicine but lacks functional groups that cells can bind to. In his PhD research, he is investigating different methodologies to achieve this.

Marcus has been working on materials based on blends of cellulose and chitosan (obtained from shellfish, shells or fungi), but as chitosan lacks tensile strength, he has had mixed success.

When seeking alternative approaches and came across Professor Igor Polikarpov from the University of São Paulo.

Research success from São Paulo

Professor Polikarpov’s research group have managed to isolate the section of protein that was responsible for allowing a particular enzyme to attach to cellulose, and have modified it to allow other chemicals to be cross-linked to it.

Particularly interesting for Marcus’ research was that if a bio-functional chemical — such as a peptide — could be cross-linked to this protein, it could be possible to improve the bio-functionality of cellulose scaffolds once the compound had been adsorbed onto their surface.

A visit to labs in the University of São Paulo was called for.

Remarkable facilities

Marcus found the facilities in the laboratory very impressive.

‘Six high-performance liquid chromatographies for a lab of fewer than 20 students with three dedicated support staff. It was clear that São Paulo state’s commitment of 13% of its GDP to higher education and research and development was being well spent.'

He also visited the National Centre for Research in Energy and Materials in Campinas, including the Brazilian Nanotechnology National Laboratory where he used their scanning electron microscope and atomic force microscopy facilities.

A different experience

According to Marcus, going to a country where you don't speak the language and didn't learn one with a similar root at school, can be daunting.

‘I strongly recommend learning at least a series of basic sentences before anyone attempts this as it saves many minutes of confused looks and expansive hand gestures used to be understood.'

'My second piece of advice is to never underestimate the size of a country. The University of São Paulo has a number of campuses and the one that I was to work at was located in São Carlos, a three and a half hour drive from São Paulo. Many of my friends were expecting me to spend a fair amount of time on a beach, unfortunately this wasn’t realised as the nearest beach was five hours away by car.’

Reality of climate change

Marcus said it was shocking to see the extent by which the water level has dropped in several reservoirs in Brazil. Many house owners on the shore now have two boathouses — one where the water-level used to be and one where the water-level now is.

For Marcus, it brought home the challenges associated with climate change and why the research being carried out at the CSCT and our public engagement activities are so important.

‘With so many new technologies today, it’s an exciting time to be working in the field of healthcare.’
Marcus Johns