What Happens When Great Scientific Minds Take a Chance on the Unknown?

It sounds like science fiction, but researchers at the McGowan Institute of Regenerative Medicine are growing actual human muscle in their labs. This isn’t happening anywhere else in the world, so why is it happening here?

Cells and Matrix – and Muscle, Not Scars

Human tissue is more than just cells – it also includes an extracellular matrix (or biologic scaffold) that provides support and structure. This scaffold is home to signaling molecules that allow the cells to communicate and modify the scaffold in response to changing conditions in the cells’ environment. This crosstalk between the cells and the matrix is called dynamic reciprocity, and it’s what enables scientists to grow human tissue in a lab.

Through signaling, the matrix is able to instruct cells to divide and differentiate. When an injury occurs, the damaged tissue attracts inflammatory cells that break down the matrix, resulting in the release of signals that suppress the inflammation and recruit stem cells that promote the growth of new tissue. By isolating the scaffold and manipulating its complex signals, scientists can spur the growth of new human muscle instead of scar tissue.

This is a big deal, obviously. When a patient suffers a traumatic injury that obliterates soft tissues, such as the sort that occurs in war, that patient can now benefit from the ability to re-grow that tissue. The technology is in clinical trials in the Armed Forces Institute for Regenerative Medicine, which seeks new treatments for wounded warriors. Stephen Badylak, DVM, PhD, MD, deputy director of the McGowan Institute and a professor in the Department of Surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, is a pioneer in this field.

New, But Not Unprecedented

In regenerative medicine, the use of scaffolds to support specialized structures goes back several decades. In 1996, at the first meeting of what was then called the Tissue Engineering Society, Dr. Badylak presented his group’s data on biologic scaffolds to an audience that was mainly involved in the development of more traditional biomaterials.

The idea of growing tissue from a matrix was new then, but now, about half of everything discussed at meetings for pioneers in regenerative medicine deals with this advancement. Approximately 90 related products are on the market now, mostly surgical mesh based on work that came from the labs of the McGowan Institute. Millions of patients have benefited — people with ventral hernias, people with topical wounds. But the McGowan Institute has set its sights higher, on growing functional, enervated, vascularized skeletal muscle.

It makes sense that the technology that allows for the creation and use of surgical mesh would also enable the growth of skeletal muscle, but no physician-researchers thought to expand it in this way. After all, surgical mesh has been around for a while, and it’s very useful in its current capacity. And not many physician-researchers are faced with severe traumatic injuries, either. So why did McGowan think to apply and adapt the matrix to a much more complex purpose?

Imagination and Collaboration: It’s the Back-and-Forth That Counts.

Dr. Badylak attributes the imaginative productivity of the McGowan Institute to its interdisciplinary nature. Most scientists in a highly specialized field tend to gravitate toward employment that allows them to pursue their own specialty: bioengineers go to work with other bioengineers, and together they apply bioengineering to solving problems without encountering other groups of specialists and their diversity of ideas. The same thing happens with polymer chemists and cellular physiologists.

Each of these great minds goes to work every day in his or her own silo and rarely exchanges ideas with the minds in the silo next door. And therefore, nobody ever has a discussion that leads to a more broad understanding of how all of the disciplines can unite to create an entirely new solution. There’s no crosstalk.

“People who invest years in learning how to manipulate T cells, for example, naturally believe that the way to succeed is to surround themselves with other people who have studied the same thing. That’s where that type of science happens, and that’s how you increase your chances of success,” says Dr. Badylak. “But by shutting yourself off, you’re missing out on the perspective you can gain when you associate with other specialists. Together, people can help each other see the possibilities.”

“Dynamic Reciprocity” Is Not Just for Cells

“At the McGowan Institute, we look for the sort of people who aren’t afraid to take a different tack,” he says. “If you’re willing to be the one of the only scientists in your specialty here, you can approach your work from a standpoint that incorporates diversity of thought, and you’re already ahead.”

When an institution encourages the free flow of ideas and doesn’t rigidly define the roles of its researchers, new and better solutions are the result. And free-thinking scientists are the sort of people who are attracted to a collaborative environment that encourages risk-taking. These are the environments where ideas are grown.