Ozan Akkus and his colleagues from the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio has succeeded in making fibers made completely from the protein collagen. Why is this a big deal? Because it is so bloody hard to do.
In a paper published the journal Advanced Functional Materials, Akkus and others describe the generation of their three-dimensional collagen threads. This is the first time anyone has described the formation of such threads made purely from collagen.
Collagen is a very widely distributed protein in our bodies. It is the major structural component of tendons, and most connective tissues, and as a whole, collagen composes approximately one-third of all the protein in our bodies. There are almost 30 different types of collagen; some collagens for stiff fibers and others form flat networks that act as cushions upon which cells and other tissues can sit.
Collagen biosynthesis is very complicated and occurs in several steps. First, the collagen genes are transcribed into messenger RNAs that are translated by ribosomes into collagen protein. However, collagen proteins are made in a longer, inactive form that must undergo several types of modifications before it is usable.
Collagen synthesis begins in a compartment of the cell known as the endoplasmic reticulum, which is a series of folded membranes associated with the nuclear membrane. Within the endoplasmic reticulum, the end piece of the collagen protein, known as the signal peptide, is removed by enzymes called signal peptidases that clip such caps off proteins. Now particular amino acids within the collagen protein chains are chemically modified. The significance of these modifications will become clear later, but two amino acids, lysine and proline, and -OH or hydroxyl groups added to them. This process is called “hydroxylation,” and vitamin C is an important co-factor for this reaction. Some of the hydroxylysine residues have sugars attached to them, and three collagen protein chains now self-associate to form a “triple ɣ helical structure.” This “procollagen” as it is called, is shipped to another compartment in the cell known as the Golgi apparatus. Within the Golgi apparatus, the procollagen it is prepared to be secreted to the cell exterior. Once secreted, collagen modification continues. Other proteins of the collagen protein chains called “registration peptides” are clipped off by procollagen peptidase to form “tropocollagen.” Multiple tropocollagen molecules are then lashed together by means of the enzyme lysyl oxidase, which links hydroxylysine and lysine residues together in order to form the collagen fibrils. Multiple collagen fibrils form a proper collagen fiber. Variations on a theme are also available, since collagen can also, alternatively, attached to cell membranes by means of several types of proteins, including fibronectin and integrin.
Now, if the cells has to go through all that just to make a collagen fiber, how tough do you think it is to make collagen fiber in a culture dish? Answer – way hard. In order to make collagen threads, Akkus and his team had to use a novel method for mature collagen production, and then they compacted the collagen molecules by means of the mobility of these molecules in an electrical field. This “electrophoretic compaction” method also served to properly align the collagen molecules until they formed proper collagen threads. Biomechanical analyses of these fabricated collagen threads showed that they had the mechanical properties of a genuine tendon. Akkus’ group when one step further and showed that a device they designed with movable electrodes could fabricate continuous collagen threads (). Thus, Akkus and his crew showed that they could make as many collagen threads as they needed and that these threads worked like tendons (see here for video). Are these guys good or what?
Nest, Akkus and his gang seeded collagen threads with mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) from bone marrow. Remarkably, these collagen thread-grown mesenchymal stem cells differentiated into tenocytes, which are the cells that made tendons. Normally, MSCs do not readily form tenocytes in the laboratory, and they do not easily make tendons. However, in this case, the MSCs not only differentiated into tenocytes and made tenocyte-specific proteins and genes, but they do so without the addition of exogenous growth factors; the collagen threads were all the cells needed.
The seeded MSCs made Collagen I, which is the most abundant collagen of the human body, and is present in scar tissue, tendons, skin, artery walls, corneas, the endomysium surrounding muscle fibers, fibrocartilage, and the organic part of bones and teeth. Other tendon-specific proteins that were made included tenomodulin, and COMP (Cartilage oligomeric matrix protein). Furthermore, the electrically-aligned collagen does a better job of inducing the tenocyte fate in MSCs than collagen that is randomly oriented.
These remarkable and fascinating results demonstrate scaffolds made of densely compacted collagen threads stimulates tendon formation by Mesenchymal stem cells. Thus electrically aligned collagen as a very promising candidate for functional repair of injured tendons and ligaments. Now it is time to show that this can work in a living creature. Let the preclinical trials commence!!