IMAGINE if you have a disease that is affecting your heart or suffer injuries that affect your skin or bones. Wouldn’t it be great if you could restore the damaged tissue or organ back to its healthy state without the need for organ transplant or surgery?
This may well be increasingly possible with research in human stem cells. Stem cells and tissue engineering represent an exciting area in medicine because of their potential to regenerate and repair damaged tissue.
Associate Professor Dr Angela Ng Min Hwei, head of the Tissue Engineering Centre (TEC) at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, said: “Stem cells are a class of undifferentiated cells that can renew and duplicate themselves, and have the capacity to become specialised cells when coaxed with the help of chemical concoctions and growth factors. By getting a stem cell from you, for example, scientists could develop different human tissues mainly cartilage, bone, nerve, heart muscle and respiratory epithelium.”
To form the tissue, principles of material engineering have to be applied.
“To enable the tissue to be formed, there needs to be a frame where the tissue can grow and be dissolved once it is fully formed,” she added.
There are two sources of stem cells. Adult stem cells can be isolated from the body in different ways, depending on the tissue. Blood stem cells, for example, can be taken from a donor’s bone marrow, from blood in the umbilical cord when a baby is born, or from a person’s circulating blood.
“Embryonic stem cells come from human embryos that are three to five days old — typically those from fertility clinics which are left over from assisted reproduction attempts such as in vitro fertilisation. Of course necessary permission is obtained for research purposes.”
TEC aims to become an internationally recognised centre of excellence in the clinical translation of tissue engineering and regenerative medicine research by focusing on education, training, services and commercialisation.
“From a humble beginning in 1999 as one small laboratory with two principal investigators and a research assistant, TEC has grown into a full-fledged facility and was recognised by the Education Ministry as a centre of excellence in research in 2008. This centre is a reference centre for tissue engineering and regenerative research in Malaysia and its neighbours.”
Under the direction of founder Professor Datuk Dr Ruszymah Idrus, the centre is devoted to exploring the capability of translating tissue engineering and regenerative medicine into new medical therapies. “As part of UKM Faculty of Medicine, it is dedicated to training the next generation of scientists in this field,” added Dr Ng.
TEC has run a master’s as well as doctoral programme in stem cells and tissue engineering since 2012. By offering PhD and MSc in Tissue Engineering, TEC is the first in the country to offer postgraduate degrees in this field.
Dr Jezamine Lim is the centre’s most recent doctoral graduate and its first female PhD recipient. Her thesis is titled Wharton’s Jelly Stem Cell as an Allogenic Cell Source for Bone Tissue Engineering for Pre-Clinical Proof of Concept.
To date, TEC has four permanent research fellows, one contract research fellow and two more research fellows from another university pursuing their doctoral degrees.
“We have 10 scientific officers and 15 postgraduate students doing research,” said Dr Ng.
TEC has conducted clinical trials for its very first tissue engineered product, MyDerm, a skin substitute for burns and ulcer patients. “Many other products developed from our research and innovation at the centre are in translational phase to enter clinical trials soon. The centre has also established local and international collaborations with various academic centres and industries around the world.
“We also conduct community projects to enlighten the public, from schoolchildren to working adults, on tissue engineering and regenerative medicine to share our exciting discoveries.
“We believe this will nurture the interest of youths to be involved in tissue engineering research and development. We aspire to establish a platform for clinically-driven research and development, and learning and public engagement initiatives, on the way to become the regional centre of excellence in tissue engineering.”