Cells are often implanted or ‘seeded’ into an artificial structure capable of supporting three-dimensional tissue formation. These structures, typically called scaffolds, are often critical, both ex vivo as well as in vivo, to recapitulating the in vivo milieu and allowing cells to influence their own microenvironments. Scaffolds usually serve at least one of the following purposes:
Allow cell attachment and migration
Deliver and retain cells and biochemical factors
Enable diffusion of vital cell nutrients and expressed products
Exert certain mechanical and biological influences to modify the behaviour of the cell phase
This animation of a rotating Carbon nanotube shows its 3D structure. Carbon nanotubes are among the numerous candidates for tissue engineering scaffolds since they are biocompatible, resistant to biodegradation and can be functionalized with biomolecules. However, the possibility of toxicity with non-biodegradable nano-materials is not fully understood.
To achieve the goal of tissue reconstruction, scaffolds must meet some specific requirements. A high porosity and an adequate pore size are necessary to facilitate cell seeding and diffusion throughout the whole structure of both cells and nutrients. Biodegradability is often an essential factor since scaffolds should preferably be absorbed by the surrounding tissues without the necessity of a surgical removal. The rate at which degradation occurs has to coincide as much as possible with the rate of tissue formation: this means that while cells are fabricating their own natural matrix structure around themselves, the scaffold is able to provide structural integrity within the body and eventually it will break down leaving the neotissue, newly formed tissue which will take over the mechanical load. Injectability is also important for clinical uses. Recent research on organ printing is showing how crucial a good control of the 3D environment is to ensure reproducibility of experiments and offer better results.
Many different materials (natural and synthetic, biodegradable and permanent) have been investigated. Most of these materials have been known in the medical field before the advent of tissue engineering as a research topic, being already employed as bioresorbable sutures. Examples of these materials are collagen and some polyesters.
New biomaterials have been engineered to have ideal properties and functional customization: injectability, synthetic manufacture, biocompatibility, non-immunogenicity, transparency, nano-scale fibers, low concentration, resorption rates, etc. PuraMatrix, originating from the MIT labs of Zhang, Rich, Grodzinsky and Langer is one of these new biomimetic scaffold families which has now been commercialized and is impacting clinical tissue engineering.
A commonly used synthetic material is PLA – polylactic acid. This is a polyester which degrades within the human body to form lactic acid, a naturally occurring chemical which is easily removed from the body. Similar materials are polyglycolic acid (PGA) and polycaprolactone (PCL): their degradation mechanism is similar to that of PLA, but they exhibit respectively a faster and a slower rate of degradation compared to PLA.
Scaffolds may also be constructed from natural materials: in particular different derivatives of the extracellular matrix have been studied to evaluate their ability to support cell growth. Proteic materials, such as collagen or fibrin, and polysaccharidic materials, like chitosan or glycosaminoglycans (GAGs), have all proved suitable in terms of cell compatibility, but some issues with potential immunogenicity still remains. Among GAGs hyaluronic acid, possibly in combination with cross linking agents (e.g. glutaraldehyde, water soluble carbodiimide, etc…), is one of the possible choices as scaffold material. Functionalized groups of scaffolds may be useful in the delivery of small molecules (drugs) to specific tissues. Another form of scaffold under investigation is decellularised tissue extracts whereby the remaining cellular remnants/extracellular matrices act as the scaffold.
A 2009 study by Ratmir et al. aimed to improve in vivo-like conditions for 3D tissue via “stacking and de-stacking layers of paper impregnated with suspensions of cells in extracellular matrix hydrogel, making it possible to control oxygen and nutrient gradients in 3D, and to analyze molecular and genetic responses”. It is possible to manipulate gradients of soluble molecules, and to characterize cells in these complex gradients more effectively than conventional 3D cultures based on hydrogels, cell spheroids, or 3D perfusion reactors. Different thicknesses of paper and types of medium can support a variety of experimental environments. Upon deconstruction, these sheets can be useful in cell-based high-throughput screening and drug discovery.