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← How we could teach our bodies to heal faster

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Showing Revision 1 created 08/25/2018 by Joseph Geni.

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    What if you could take a pill or a vaccine
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    and, just like getting over a cold,
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    you could heal your wounds faster.
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    Today, if we have
    an operation or an accident,
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    we're in the hospital for weeks,
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    and often left with scars
    and painful side effects
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    of our inability to regenerate
    or regrow healthy, uninjured organs.
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    I work to create materials
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    that instruct our immune system to give us
    the signals to grow new tissues.
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    Just like vaccines instruct
    our body to fight disease,
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    we could instead instruct
    our immune system
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    to build tissues
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    and more quickly heal wounds.
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    Now, regrowing body parts out of nowhere
    might seem like magic,
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    but there are several organisms
    that can achieve this feat.
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    Some lizards can regrow their tails,
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    the humble salamander
    can completely regenerate their arm,
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    and even us mere humans
    can regrow our liver
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    after losing more than half
    of its original mass.
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    To make this magic
    a bit closer to reality,
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    I'm investigating how our body
    can heal wounds and build tissue
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    through instructions
    from the immune system.
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    From a scrape on your knee
    to that annoying sinus infection,
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    our immune system defends
    our body from danger.
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    I'm an immunologist,
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    and by using what I know
    about our body's defense system,
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    I was able to identify key players
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    in our fight to build back
    our cuts and bruises.
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    When looking at materials
    that are currently being tested
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    for their abilities to help regrow muscle,
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    our team noticed that after treating
    an injured muscle with these materials,
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    there was a large number of immune cells
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    in that material and
    the surrounding muscle.
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    So in this case, instead of
    the immune cells
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    rushing off towards infection
    to fight bacteria,
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    they're rushing towards an injury.
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    I discovered a specific
    type of immune cell,
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    the helper T cell,
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    was present inside
    that material that I implanted
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    and absolutely critical for wound healing.
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    Now, just like when you were a kid
    and you'd break your pencil
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    and try and tape it back together again,
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    we can heal,
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    but it might not be
    in the most functional way,
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    and we'll get a scar.
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    So if we don't have these helper T cells,
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    instead of healthy muscle,
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    our muscle develops
    fat cells inside of it,
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    and if there's fat in our muscle,
    it isn't as strong.
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    Now, using our immune system,
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    our body could grow back
    without these scars
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    and look like what it was
    before we were even injured.
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    I'm working to create materials
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    that give us the signals
    to build new tissue
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    by changing the immune response.
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    We know that any time a material
    is implanted in our body,
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    the immune system will respond to it.
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    This ranges from pacemakers
    to insulin pumps
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    to the materials that engineers are using
    to try and build new tissue.
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    So when I place that material,
    or scaffold, in the body,
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    the immune system creates
    a small environment of cells and proteins
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    that can change the way
    that our stem cells behave.
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    Now, just like the weather
    affects our daily activities,
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    like going for a run
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    or staying inside and binge-watching
    an entire TV show on Netflix,
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    the immune environment of a scaffold
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    affects the way that
    our stem cells grow and develop.
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    If we have the wrong signals,
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    say the Netflix signals,
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    we get fat cells instead of muscle.
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    These scaffolds are made
    of a variety of different things,
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    from plastics to naturally
    dried materials,
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    nanofibers of varying thicknesses,
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    sponges that are more or less porous,
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    gels of different stiffnesses.
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    And researchers can even
    make the materials
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    release different signals over time.
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    So in other words, we can orchestrate
    this Broadway show of cells
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    by giving them the correct
    stage, cues and props,
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    that can be changed for different tissues,
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    just like a producer would change the set
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    for "Les Mis" versus
    "Little Shop of Horrors."
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    I'm combining specific types of signals
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    that mimic how our body responds to injury
    to help us regenerate.
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    In the future, we could see
    a scar-proof band-aid,
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    a moldable muscle filler,
    or even a wound-healing vaccine.
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    Now, we aren't going to wake up tomorrow
    and be able to heal like Wolverine.
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    Probably not next Tuesday either.
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    But with these advances,
    and working with our immune system
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    to help build tissue and heal wounds,
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    we could begin seeing
    products on the market
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    that work with our body's defense system
    to help us regenerate,
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    and maybe one day be able
    to keep pace with a salamander.