Interview with visiting prof. Tony Weiss

Unravelling the secrets of human elasticity - Tony Weiss

Unravelling the secrets of human elasticity

In July this year, Tony Weiss from the University of Sydney presented an ICMS lecture on “Interplay of human protein biomaterials and accelerated wound repair”. The Weiss Lab focuses on the assembly of human elastic tissue, its damage and its repair. He is very interested in the amazing, self-assembling elastic protein tropoelastin, and in the use of synthetic elastin to repair elastic tissues in skin, artery, bladder and lung.

 

WHY IS ELASTIN SO IMPORTANT IN THE FIELD OF TISSUE ENGINEERING AND REGENERATIVE MEDICINE?

Elastin is an essential part of the human body. Wherever you find elasticity in the body, you find elastin. For example, elastin enables the expansion and contraction of blood vessels with every heartbeat, and gives skin its flexibility. It is the fundamental protein building material for elasticity. So if we want to make appropriate materials that will work well in soft elastic environments, we have to look at elastin and find ways to build elastin in the laboratory.

 

WHAT IS YOUR WAY TO ACHIEVE THAT?

We have developed tropoelastin which is a precise copy of the natural elastic protein present in the human body. Nature has been working on tropoelastin for many millions of years, which we view as a long term research project of Nature. We have joined that project relatively recently, by making tropoelastin ourselves and by utilizing it. We are working with a very sophisticated molecule, and by continuing with the recombinant form of the protein, which mimics the precise properties of the natural molecule, we are able to leverage the extraordinary properties of this molecule that nature has already developed. As a result of that, we are getting very interesting results.

 

THE HUMAN BODY IS PROBABLY THE MOST COMPLEX STRUCTURE ON EARTH. HOW DO YOU SEE A SCIENTIFIC APPROACH THAT TACKLES A VERY SPECIFIC PART OF IT, ESPECIALLY WHEN YOU THINK OF THE FINAL AND SO COMPLEX “APPLICATION”?

With current technologies, we cannot recreate the overall complexity of human tissue - we can only approximate it. And the way to do that is to understand each of the building components. Our mission is to understand the contributions of all these components towards elasticity within the body. In addition, even though we deal with less complex systems than the entire body, in our laboratory we try to use materials that approximate their biological counterparts as much as possible. Our expectation is that, when implanted, the human body will recognize these materials as “natural” and surrounding cells and tissue will gradually modify, convert and improve the implanted materials. So our belief is that nature will at a certain point take over and do the rest of the healing job for us. And while our focus is on understanding elasticity, there are other scientists who work on completely different aspects of the structural and the interactive components of the human body. Collectively, as a research community, we are all contributing towards the building of much more complex structures.

 

HOW DO YOU ENVISION THE COMING FUTURE? HAS THIS TECHNOLOGY MADE IT TO CLINICAL TRIALS YET?

We finished four clinical trials. Also, I founded a start-up company that became a clinical stage company and was recently sold in to a major pharma company. It was actually one of the largest healthcare transactions in the history of our nation, which is a wonderful achievement in the field of tissue engineering. I am eternally optimistic by nature, and I am happy to commit to long-term strategies. We have shown that clinical trials work and I am optimistic about the near future too.

 

YOUR LAB HAS ALSO DEVELOPED METHACRYLATED TROPOELASTIN, OR THE SO CALLED “METRO TECHNOLOGY”. IT IS PRESENTED AS A SURGICAL GLUE WHICH PROMISES TO ELIMINATE THE NEED FOR SUTURES AND STAPLES DURING SURGICAL PROCEDURES, WHILE PROMOTING TISSUE HEALING.

WHAT IS THE RANGE OF APPLICATIONS YOU HAVE IN MIND AND HAS THIS TECHNOLOGY ALREADY BEEN TESTED IN HUMAN TRIALS?

We have been testing the MeTro technology in a pre-clinical environment and we want to move to human studies very soon. We have consistently shown that our material is comparable or superior to existing sealants. Deep inside the body, in wet environments, you need to have a powerful elastic sealant, and sealants that are currently in use do not meet all the needs. Our technology does, and I expect significant applications both in emergency treatments, for example when it might be necessary to save a life by quickly stopping blood flow, and in surgical settings, that would benefit from the fact that the MeTro technology is biologically compatible.