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Photo of fingers holding a micro-scaffold

Can scientists regrow the human body?

Like a trellis in a garden, the 3-D micro-scaffold provides a form in which replacement blood vessels, joint cartilage and even solid organs can grow. Biomedical engineers from the Health Science Center have obtained three patents on the scaffold’s use, placing the university squarely on the forefront of a research phenomenon called tissue engineering.

“If a tissue is not regenerating or healing itself, we want to find a way to help the body do the job,” said C. Mauli Agrawal, Ph.D., associate professor of orthopaedics and the founding director of the Center for Clinical Bioengineering at the Health Science Center.

“Tissue engineering is the science of persuading the body to heal or regenerate tissues that do not do so spontaneously. It represents a change in concept. Up to now we have implanted something artificial, such as a joint, valve or shaft, to repair a part of the body. The tissue engineering concept holds that, in the future, we can grow the parts that patients need.”

Tissue engineering is but one focus of biomedical engineering efforts at the Health Science Center. University researchers are studying the factors that cause replacement hips and knees to wear out – a crucial concern for the half-million patients who receive joint replacements annually. Other faculty members are learning how to simulate functions that may be missing or abnormally expressed in diseased bodies. (This area of study is known as “modeling.”) And others are studying ways to make new implant materials for teeth and many other parts of the body. Robotics is coming into play more and more, including use in specialized studies of the brain. “Biomedical engineers are carpenters of the human body,” Dr. Agrawal said. “What does an engineer do? He or she solves problems. These are medical problems, framed in the context of the environment of the human body.”

Dr. Agrawal said the Health Science Center is one of only two or three groups working with the scaffold concept. The clinical bioengineering program he directs launched in January 2000 and unites the research talents of 15 to 20 members of the Health Science Center and The University of Texas at San Antonio. Faculty in diverse fields are also planning a separate program to train students to become biomedical engineers – scientists who solve engineering problems within the special confines of the human body. The scaffold is a prime example of the convergence of engineering, cell biology and medicine.

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