Working alongside the Knowledge Centre for Materials Chemistry, the University of Bolton has developed a trio of next-generation medical innovations. Jonny Williamson catches up with the University's Mohsen Miraftab - Professor of Fibre Science & Technology.
Tendons connect muscle to bone, and while extremely strong, once damaged they can take a long time to fully repair – leaving athletes on the sidelines for months.
Typically, a damaged tendon can be replaced with either another similar tendon from the patient’s body, or substituted with an artificial material.
Lacking in the strength necessary, the artificial materials currently employed aren’t ideal, leading many to explore alternatives. Due to their compatibility with the human body and ability to promote cell growth, collagen fibres are a popular choice.
These biocompatible collagen fibres can be woven into the damaged tendons to offer structural support – like ‘scaffolding’ – for cells to grow on. However, to date, these fibres have been short, inconsistent, irregular, and varied in their properties.
The University of Bolton has pioneered a method of producing collagen fibres in a continuous flow, capable of being tailored to the specifics of each individual case.
The institution has created a machine capable of producing collagen as a continuous single filament, and the next step is to take that filament and produce a yarn used to create structures for cells to thrive on.
Minute prosthetic grafts
Another of the University’s bio-inspired textiles are prosthetic endovascular stent grafts of less than 6mm, with specially designed internal scaffold structures intended to improve patient blood flow.
Composed of fabric supported by a metal mesh (stent), these grafts are surgically placed inside blood vessels to treat a variety of conditions, but most commonly to reinforce a weak spot in an artery.
Though beneficial, prosthetic grafts of such small diameters suffer from calcification and build-up of cholesterol in their inner walls which can lead to heart disease and even complete occlusion (blocking) of the graft.
With current grafts not up to the job, the Univeristy has simulated flow in narrow vessels with a variety of internal profiles and concluded that helical structures – created by a technique called electrospinning – have proven to be the most effective.
Additionally, the University’s research has shown that cross-linked polymer blends not only enhance the grafts mechanical properties, but support cell growth and proliferation of endothelial cells which line the interior surface of blood vessels.
Smart wound dressings
The innovation closest to market is the University’s smart wound dressing, a covering which not only offers a high degree of absorbency, but also has a gelatinous texture and is naturally antimicrobial.
Each of the three features are available in separate forms, but Bolton is the first to combine the properties in one system.
The dressing brings together alginate – gathered from algae – and chitosan – found in crustacean shells – to produce a hybrid dissolvable fibre called alchite.
Having worked on alchite for almost a decade, the University has now acquired global patents and spun out a company to commercialise it. Initially manufactured in China, production is fully expected to move to the UK should the product prove successful.
Reportedly outperforming anything currently on the market, if alchite does take off, it’s estimated that turnover could be upwards of £250m after the first year, aided by the fact many practitioners already widely use both alginate and chitosan.