North­eastern Uni­ver­sity engi­neering pro­fessor Jef­frey Ruberti and his research col­leagues are breaking new ground in the tech­nique known as “hybrid tissue engi­neering” by attempting to com­bine cow tissue with human tissue to pro­duce corneas for human transplant.

Their effort has gained sup­port from the National Insti­tutes of Health, which recently awarded Ruberti’s team a two-​​year, $785,000 grant.

(Click here to watch a video of Ruberti and his col­leagues dis­cussing their research)

If suc­cessful, the research could solve a poten­tial shortage of corneas suit­able for trans­plant. More than 33,000 Amer­i­cans require corneal trans­plants every year in order to pre­serve their vision from dis­eases such as Fuchs’ Dys­trophy and Ker­a­to­conus. But the explo­sive growth in LASIK eye surgery, which ren­ders corneas unsuit­able for trans­plant, has made it impor­tant to develop a viable method of pro­ducing corneas in the lab, said Ruberti.

The cornea, which is pri­marily made of col­lagen, is one of the most well-​​organized and struc­turally uni­form tis­sues in the human body.Tissue engi­neers have had lim­ited suc­cess in repli­cating that nat­ural orga­ni­za­tion. That is why Ruberti and his col­leagues are looking at an alter­na­tive source of collagen—from the skin of a cow—to build this intri­cate tissue in the lab.

Taking a sample of col­lagen from the cow and using spe­cific envi­ron­mental con­di­tions, the team manip­u­lates the col­lagen into a tem­plate. Human corneal cells are then com­bined with the tem­plate, where they repro­duce, orga­nize and build new corneal tissue.

In the right envi­ron­ment, it seems that col­lagen has the ability to reshape itself with min­imal guid­ance,” said Ruberti.

The next step for Ruberti and his colleagues—Nima Saeidi, a post­doc­tor­alas­so­ciate in his lab, James Zieske, a senior sci­en­tist at Schepens Eye Research Insti­tute in Boston and Vickery Trinkaus-​​Randall, a bio­chem­istry and oph­thal­mology pro­fessor at Boston Uni­ver­sity School of Medicine—will be to trans­plant the engi­neered tissue into animals.

There are other pos­sible appli­ca­tions that could result from their research, including engi­neered lig­a­ments, ten­dons and other collagen-​​based tissues.

We are finally begin­ning to under­stand why nature has chosen col­lagen mol­e­cules as the prin­cipal struc­tural ele­ment in ani­mals,” said Ruberti. “It is simply a matter of pro­viding the cor­rect con­di­tions and voila; one might turn cow skin into cornea sub­sti­tutes. There is a tremen­dous oppor­tu­nity here to treat many diseases.”