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Wyss Institute Researchers Develop DNA-Based Extracellular Matrix

Promising new technology could facilitate repair of bone, muscle, and other tissues; lead to regeneration of whole organs

BOSTON, Mass. — Researchers from the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University have developed a DNA-based extracellular matrix that could be a highly effective and safe tool for regenerating bone, muscle, and other tissues. Their findings appear in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

Wyss researchers have developed an effective artificial extracellular matrix using dual innovations: engineered proteins and DNA nanostructures.

The extracellular matrix is a protective layer that surrounds and supports a cell, enabling it to grow, heal, and survive, as well as allowing it to bind together with other cells. In the human body, where it is made from protein fibers and carbohydrates, the extracellular matrix plays a key role in repairing bone, muscle, and other tissues.
In medical applications, doctors now heal badly broken bones by creating extracellular matrix material from human sources, such as cadaver bones. But because of the wide variability in the quality of the material generated from these natural sources, the safety and effectiveness of this type of extracellular matrix is hard to control.

Researchers, led by the Wyss Institute’s Pamela Silver, Ph.D., and Faisal Aldaye, Ph.D, have developed an artificial extracellular matrix using dual innovations: engineered proteins and DNA nanostructures.

The result is an extracellular matrix that can be precisely programmed to generate specific properties, such as atomic-scale stiffness and length. And since DNA is both biocompatible and biodegradable, the risk of donor-derived infection would be totally eliminated. Sample variability would likewise be significantly reduced.

Moreover, the new DNA-based approach could make it possible to create a variety of extracellular matrices with tailored mechanical properties, such as would be suitable for numerous therapeutic purposes that aren’t being addressed using current methods.  For instance, very stiff nanostructures might be used to regenerate bone, whereas more flexible ones could be used to heal skin.

"These innovations offer an entirely new avenue of investigation for development of new therapeutics in the regenerative medicine arena," said Wyss Institute Founding Director Donald E. Ingber, M.D., Ph.D. "This work very much reflects the mission of the Wyss Institute, which is to develop and bring to market new materials and devices that will revolutionize healthcare, other industries, and the environment."

The Wyss Institute was founded in 2009 with a $125 million gift — the largest philanthropic gift in Harvard’s history — from Hansjorg Wyss. It is dedicated to exploring the design principles found in nature and applying these insights to create new bioinspired materials and devices in areas of industry that have never before been touched by the biological revolution.

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