Lab-made collagen fibrils help solve mystery behind corneal healing

A newly developed method of creating collagen fibrils in laboratory conditions might be the key to understanding why the eye sometimes heals with less than perfect results.

Researchers from the University of Texas at Dallas have recently detailed a way to artificially create the fibrils, which are used by corneal keratocytes when repairing the eye, using a microfluidic device. The team behind the project is now using this to figure out how corneal keratocytes repair tissue, as well as why this process sometimes results in scarring.

Dr David Schmidtke, bioengineer at the University of Texas at Dallas, said the eye’s healing and scarring process is still not understood particularly well.

“We came up with a way to mimic an injury model, so we can look at how the cells respond when there is a wound,” he said.

The lab-made fibrils are developed using microfluidic devices, which are small sheets of plastic that contain tiny channels. Researchers inject collagen through these channels which polymerises, creating aligned fibrils that are similar in structure to collagen fibrils.

The team is currently focussing on using these collagen fibrils to understand how keratocytes sense a fibrils’s stiffness, and how this affects their interactions. For example, Schmidtke said keratocytes behave differently on aligned, as opposed to randomly oriented, collagen fibrils.

It is hoped that the research could lead to the development of therapies that would reduce corneal scarring, as well as guide efforts to engineer tissue replacements. The technique could also have additional applications in the research of cell patterning and behaviour.

The project represents a collaboration between University of Texas at Dallas and the University of Texas Southwestern.

“The collaboration with UT Southwestern, and having research lab space there, has been a big benefit to applying engineering tools to biomedical questions,” Schmidtke said.

The method, which was funded in part by a US$1.8 million (AU$2.6 m) grant from the US National Institutes of Health, was recently published in the journal Biomedical Microdevices.

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