Tissues From Threads
Fulbright-Nehru scholar Shreya Mehrotra is exploring the use of Muga silk in building a fully-functional silk cardiac patch.
If Shreya Mehrotra hadn’t taken a tissue engineering course at the Vellore Institute of Technology, Tamil Nadu, where she obtained a B.Tech in Biotechnology, the field of human tissue regeneration might not have bonded with the use of Muga silk. Muga is a proteinaceous biopolymer derived from the endemic Indian silkworm variety Antheraea assamensis. As a young child raised in Kanpur, Mehrotra began dissecting topics of all sizes and shapes with her father, who didn’t shy away from engaging her in science, astronomy and politics. “Quality education and self-dependence were the two most important things in my house,” says Mehrotra. She developed a deep love for science and is now working to save the lives of patients suffering from a range of illnesses, including, but not limited to, muscular dystrophy and heart failure.
Fascinated by the research potential in health care, Mehrotra enrolled at Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati to pursue a Ph.D. focused on engineering biological materials for supporting cardiac muscle tissues. It was in this program, while working on different natural polymeric materials, that her team discovered the various innate properties of Muga silk. “Muga silk provides multitudinous properties that are rarely found in any naturally-occurring material, including mechanical robustness, biocompatibility, low immune response and presence of intrinsic cell-binding motif,” says Mehrotra. Essentially, this team of Indian scientists hit the jackpot in its search for techniques for building a fully-functioning silk cardiac patch. Mehrotra went on to being accepted into the Fulbright-Nehru Fellowship program, where she worked with Ali Khademhosseini, then-professor at Harvard-MIT Health Science and Technology division, as well as many other highly regarded research scientists from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard Medical School. She also had the opportunity to present her work at a conference on tissue engineering and regenerative medicine, in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Engineering a functional heart tissue is extremely challenging. Unlike some human organs, the heart cannot regenerate itself after a heart attack. The dead muscle is often replaced by scar tissue that can no longer transmit electrical signals or contract, both of which are necessary for smooth and forceful heartbeats. With over 26 million people worldwide suffering from heart failure, there is an epidemic of various cardiac diseases, with high rates of patient mortality. “Low success rates of the pharmacological treatments, high cost of assist devices and paucity of organ donors have resulted in developing repair strategies via artificial tissue engineering.” Her research at Harvard-MIT consisted of developing cardiac patches using an automated 3D bioprinting process, which could be easily implanted into the patient’s affected heart. Based on her findings in India related to Muga silk, Mehrotra was able to focus on using the silk worm as the foundation for printing 3D structures that mimic the architecture of native heart tissue and harbor beating heart cells.
As part of her Ph.D., Mehrotra is continuing the important work from the Fulbright-Nehru Fellowship and testing cardiac patches on small animal models. Her next step will be developing patches that can be placed in self-sustained robotic versions, “for their better performance over longer duration of implantations,” says Mehrotra.
After completing her Ph.D., Mehrotra intends to obtain a position at a university setting, where she can continue to develop effective biomaterials for tissue engineering and regenerative medicine.
Megan McDrew is a professor of sociology at Hartnell College. She is based in Monterey, California.