Written by Spring 2020 Undergraduate Writing Contest runner-up Brooke Linnehan
Diabetes, a metabolic disorder characterized by dysregulated insulin responses, makes it difficult for the body to manage blood sugar levels. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) state that over 34 million people in the United States have diabetes, and estimate that 88 million adults have “prediabetes,” meaning that they are at risk for type 2 diabetes . Permanently high blood-glucose levels can weaken the immune system by impairing white blood cell function . Due to a weakened immune system, weakened circulation, or diabetic neuropathy, diabetics may experience difficulty recovering from wounds .
Scientists have found a way to enhance the body’s response to wounds by directing tissue regeneration onto a biomedical tool called a scaffold. A scaffold is a degradable physical structure put in place for cells to attach to and develop into tissues, like the foundation of a house . They can take various forms, such as gels [4-5], films , or fibers . Making safe and effective tissue scaffolds is paramount in regenerative medicine, but this is no easy feat. One of the main challenges researchers face is finding the right material to make scaffolds out of.
An ideal tissue scaffold needs to meet certain criteria. It should be made of a material compatible with the human body to avoid adverse reactions from the immune system, similar to how an organ for transplant must be a perfect match to the recipient’s body. The scaffold must also be biodegradable. This means it should be able to degrade itself once the damaged tissue is regenerated and the body no longer has a need for it. A scaffold should be durable and not easily destroyed by heat . Ideally, the biomaterial used for a scaffold would be readily available in large quantities to achieve widespread use. These criteria lead researchers to protein-based biomaterials because of their inherent compatibility with the human body and their 3-dimensional (3D) structure, which helps direct new cells to form tissues . Proteins studied for this use include collagen, keratin, gelatin, and albumin. Among these proteins, keratin provides the ideal 3D microenvironment for facilitating new tissue growth .
Keratin is tough and fibrous, making it the perfect material for use in scaffolds. Keratin is a component of the cytoskeleton in many cells like epithelial and hair cells, so it is not foreign to the body . In fact, rat fur can be used to form these keratin fibrous scaffolds . Research presented by Bochynska-Czyz et al. highlights an effective method of utilizing rat fur for this purpose . Rat fur scaffolds were prepared by repeatedly washing fur with water and enzymes to break it down to its main keratin proteins . This cleaned rat fur can provide the proper structure and surface roughness for cultured stem cells from the rats to adhere and grow, thus demonstrating its utility as a scaffold .
This discovery has the potential for widespread benefits due to the availability of rat fur. Rats have long been used as an organism of study in biological systems and it’s safe to say that rats are not going away any time soon. To take something often overlooked, such as their fur, and turn it into a biomedical tool to help facilitate wound recovery has the potential to help countless people. The applications of keratin scaffolds could extend beyond diabetic wounds to help those wounded in the military, or those who are predisposed to having a long recovery such as the elderly or immunocompromised . Remember that the next time you spot a rat and scream “Eek!”
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