In a scientific breakthrough straight out of The Silence of the Lambs, researchers in Bordeaux have successfully synthesized a new kind of yarn made from human skin cells, according to a paper published in the journal Acta Biomaterialia. The novel application hopes to reduce inflammation caused by synthetic materials currently used in tissue engineering.
Inflammation arises when our immune systems detect something in our bodies that ought not to be there. It’s a beneficial response that acts to remedy infections and injuries, but occasionally it can turn on us in the form of autoimmune diseases such as lupus, where the body attacks itself, or when we try to find synthetic solutions to organic issues.
Skilled surgeons can patch up holes in skin and vital organs with stitches, but a limitation to their wizardry still exists in the way the body responds to these helpful, (but ultimately still) foreign bodies. Reactions to stitches can lead to increased scarring or infection, while dissolvable options, which can minimize such complications, risk disintegrating prematurely, resulting in painful and lengthy reconstructions. Human skin is already used to repair and replace damaged sections of skin, but grafts taken from the patient are limited by how much they can give, and cadaver donors can fail to take.
Coined “human textiles” by its creators, this new biological yarn will enable doctors and surgeons to engineer tissue grafts or repair organs in a way that will remain undetected by the immune system. “We can sew pouches, create tubes, valves and perforated membranes,” said Nicholas L’Heureux, co-author of the study who led the work at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research, in a statement to New Scientist. “With the yarn, any textile approach is feasible: knitting, braiding, weaving, even crocheting.”
The breakthrough builds on previous work by L’Heureux’s team, which manipulated human skin fibroblast cells to create sheets that, when rolled into tubes, could act as artificial blood vessels. It’s these sheets that were used to create the yarn, as they were cut into strands and twisted to form stronger threads. These threads were then also twisted to create yarns that could be dried and spooled, much like a bobbin of wool.
For all its strengths, the skin cell yarn won’t be able to replace all synthetic alternatives as some provide support that is supraphysiological, that is, beyond the capabilities of the native tissue it’s replacing. L’Heureux’s biological yarn will never have the structural integrity to match polymers such as polypropylene, which is about 40 times the strength.
The yarn has still however proven its worth, successfully stitching closed a wound on a rat which was fully healed after 14 days. Researchers even went one step further using a custom-made loom to weave a tube which was grafted into a sheep’s artery. The strong tube survived plantation, showing no leaks following its insertion, and allowed normal blood flow through the woven vessel. In the words of L’Heureux, “With a textile approach, once you’re done assembling, it’s ready to wear.”
Let’s just agree to keep it out of the haberdasheries.