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Researcher Working on New Ways to Study Tissue Related Birth Defects

JPost News reported this week on exciting new medical developments that may shape the future of research aimed at learning more about birth injuries and defects. The March of Dimes Foundation recently awarded the Basil O’Connor Starter Scholar Award to a biomedical engineering professor working on a new approach to tissue development that may have important ramifications into understanding how certain tissue-related birth defects arise. The work of Tufts University’s School of Engineering professor Catherine K. Kuo looks at orthopedic birth defects that occur in the mother’s womb. Clubfoot is a common version of these problems, and it results from an abnormal musculoskeletal development in the embryo. Clubfoot usually requires significant surgeries before the child is able to stand and walk.

Specifically, the work includes use of engineered embryonic tendon tissue to simulate muscle movement in the embryo to determine how that movement might affect the fetus’s development. The hope is that researchers will be able to determine if certain actions, like kicking, somehow affect that tissue development adversely. Dr. Kuo explains that the current knowledge about how muscle activity affects birth defects is minimal. The tendon will be used as a model to advance that study because the tendon plays a critical role in normal musculoskeletal systems.

The engineered muscle will be done via use of chick and mouse embryos. These engineered tendons will then be inserted into a porous biodegradable synthetic scaffold which itself will be placed in a nutrient-filled bioreactor. The scaffolding will then grow into living engineered tissue. These elaborate efforts are necessary to simulate the growth of tissue in a developing child. As Dr. Kuo notes, “It’s very difficult to study developing tissue, in this case, tendon, inside the body, and especially in utero.” That difficulty has made it essentially uncharted territory-a state that will hopefully change pending development of this line of research.

At an initial level, this new research will hopefully explain how developing tissue stiffness affects cells and how movement in utero (like kicking) affects that development. At a functional level, once researchers understand how the stiffness and movement affect development, they can begin strategizing ways to intervene when necessary to influence the movement and stiffness in an effort to prevent harmful consequences. Long-term, the doctor explains, the intervention may actually involve removing the involved cells, treating them in a bioreactor to behave normally, and then reinserting them into the fetus to help develop normal tissue function. These goals are clearly a long ways off, but as with all promising research, the steps are in place now that may ultimately lead down that road of complete prevention of a complicated birth defect.

Many birth defects that develop early on in a pregnancy are very difficult to predict or prevent. Unlike many birth injuries that arise because of failures on the part of the involved medical team to respond to problems, our Chicago injury lawyers know that many of these tissue development problems are completely unpreventable with our current level of knowledge. Hopefully this research and similar efforts will slowly change that, helping expectant mothers and medical professionals actually prevent these complications from affecting children in the future.

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