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Biomedical post-graduates seek cost-effective interventions for tissue restoration

By Qhawekazi Memani

The Biotechnology Department at the Vaal University of Technology can now boast a facility for tissue culture, where researchers and students can get into the field of tissue engineering and regenerative medicine (TERM) from master's level.

VUT has biotechnology and biomedical technology post-graduate students already engaged in the field. Engineering and chemistry students are also encouraged to form part of the TERM team, as most developed laboratories around the world have trans-disciplinary teams and this is very important for success.

The field focuses on the restoration of damaged or lost tissue through disease or injury. An example would be in the case of a patient who has been shot and has lost a considerable amount of bone and soft tissue. This would not normally grow back without intervention. Tissue engineering strategies would attempt to culture the patient or donor's cells in the laboratory under favourable conditions to grow tissue that can be transplanted back into the patient.

This gives patients the chance to have almost full restoration of form and/or function of the tissues/organs they have lost.

The challenge in the African context is the cost of this type of intervention. This is why it is important to increase African research in this field and to find new ways that are relevant and cost-effective for the developing world.

"If scientists can 'grow' tissues and eventually organs in the laboratory using stem cells, it will reduce the need for donor organs which are scarce and carry their own risks (rejection by the recipient and donor or patient morbidity). Stem cells have reduced risk of rejection even if they are from a donor and they have the potential to differentiate into many different cell types as needed by the body. They can be harvested from many different sources such as blood, fat tissue and bone marrow.

"This field is still relatively new in South Africa and VUT is hoping to form such trans-disciplinary teams and expose as many students and researchers to the field as possible in order to achieve the desired outcomes," said Nolutho Mkhumbeni: Biomedical Technology lecturer.

Another university that offers TERM is TUT at a post-graduate level in the Biomedical Technology Department.