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Biomimicry: when science draws inspiration from nature

When regenerative medicine imitates nature

Catherine Picart, Director of the Biosanté joint research unit (INSERM, CEA, Univ. Grenoble Alpes), and head of the "Biomimetics and Regenerative Medicine" team (BRM)
On October 25th, 2023 |
3 min reading time
Catherine Picart
Catherine Picart
Director of the Biosanté joint research unit (INSERM, CEA, Univ. Grenoble Alpes), and head of the "Biomimetics and Regenerative Medicine" team (BRM)
Key takeaways
  • Biomimicry makes it possible to create new tools for medicine, particularly surgical procedures.
  • Restorative medicine is on the way to becoming regenerative, i.e. being able to restore biological tissues and their functions.
  • This biomimetic approach uses bioengineering to create biomaterials for bone repair: “osteo-inducers”.
  • By understanding the molecular mechanisms involved in the formation of bone tissue, this technique will make it possible to regenerate tailor-made bones.

Bio­mimicry is becom­ing increas­ing­ly pop­u­lar in bio­med­ical research. It per­me­ates both fun­da­men­tal bio­log­i­cal research and the devel­op­ment of med­ical tech­nol­o­gy. Here are a few examples.

A new turn­ing point for restora­tive med­i­cine, which is on the way to becom­ing regen­er­a­tive, i.e. tru­ly capa­ble of restor­ing bio­log­i­cal tis­sues and their func­tions. The aim is to repro­duce liv­ing organ­isms and their process­es, in oth­er words to devel­op a bio­mimet­ic approach to med­i­cine. This is com­bined with anoth­er approach, bio­engi­neer­ing, at the inter­sec­tion between mate­ri­als sci­ence and the bio­log­i­cal sci­ences. Cather­ine Picart, head of the Bio­mimet­ics and Regen­er­a­tive Med­i­cine team in the Biosan­té Unit at CEA Greno­ble, is using these tools to cre­ate bio­ma­te­ri­als to repair bone tis­sue, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with max­illo­fa­cial sur­geons at Annecy hos­pi­tal.  The aim is to pro­vide the dam­aged bone with an envi­ron­ment in which it can rebuild itself. To do this, the team designs bio­ma­te­ri­als con­tain­ing bone growth fac­tors. They are 3D-print­ed and a bio­mimet­ic film, known as an “osteoin­duc­er”, is applied to encour­age bone regeneration.

New concepts

These bio­ma­te­ri­als are poly­mers that resem­ble the extra­cel­lu­lar matrix, the bio­log­i­cal gel found between ani­mal cells. This cross-linked poly­mer is com­posed of hyaluron­ic acid, a poly­mer found in the skin and capa­ble of form­ing very thin films on which growth fac­tor, the pro­tein that con­trols bone growth, can be deposit­ed. The film is deposit­ed on the sur­face of a porous bio­ma­te­r­i­al pro­duced by 3D print­ing. The cells adhere to it and fill the spaces, pro­duc­ing bone. This was demon­strat­ed in rodent mod­els in 20161.

This approach has also proved its worth in large ani­mals (pigs, sheep) with bone defects in the jaw and leg23. In humans, this type of mal­for­ma­tion cur­rent­ly requires sev­er­al bone graft­ing oper­a­tions. With the con­cept of bone regen­er­a­tion, it could be as sim­ple as graft­ing syn­thet­ic bone and leav­ing it to rebuild itself.

This tech­nique has the advan­tage of pro­duc­ing a cus­tomised, made-to-mea­sure restora­tion. The 3D mould con­trols the shape and poros­i­ty of the restored bone, while the sur­face film defines its quan­ti­ty and the speed at which it grows back.

In addi­tion to this bio­mimet­ic approach, anoth­er focus of the team is to under­stand how these arti­fi­cial matri­ces, com­bined with growth fac­tors, act on cells. In par­tic­u­lar, the aim is to repro­duce in vit­ro the con­trol they exert over cell com­mu­ni­ca­tion and tis­sue for­ma­tion4

The dif­fi­cul­ty with this work is that the rigid­i­ty of the sur­faces affects the response of the cells. The Greno­ble researchers have there­fore devel­oped an approach using flex­i­ble bio­mimet­ic films that are less than two microme­tres thick. The films are deposit­ed on 96-well plates, com­mon­ly used in bio­med­ical research. Each well can there­fore con­sti­tute an exper­i­men­tal con­di­tion, and 96 exper­i­ments can be car­ried out simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, each with dif­fer­ent matrix or growth fac­tor compositions.

This approach pro­vides insights into the mol­e­c­u­lar mech­a­nisms of bone tis­sue for­ma­tion, which may be use­ful for the clin­i­cal approach to bone repair.

New tools

Bio­mimicry also makes it pos­si­ble to cre­ate new med­ical tools, par­tic­u­lar­ly for surgery. There is a whole range of med­ical tech­nolo­gies that seek to repro­duce the prop­er­ties of cer­tain ani­mal or plant species. One such exam­ple is sur­gi­cal nee­dles5 inspired by par­a­sitic wasps, devel­oped by the uni­ver­si­ties of Delft and Wagenin­gen. Ultra-thin, these nee­dles are made up of sev­en inde­pen­dent rods that ensure the elas­tic­i­ty and strength of the system.

Also in the field of surgery, researchers at the Amer­i­can Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois have cre­at­ed a suc­tion cup inspired by the octo­pus6 and designed to trans­fer del­i­cate tis­sue dur­ing trans­plants. This sys­tem uses the elec­trother­mal prop­er­ties of a poly­mer to repro­duce the del­i­cate suc­tion of the tentacles.

Sur­gi­cal adhe­sives are anoth­er very promis­ing field of bio­mimet­ic tools. French com­pa­ny Tis­si­um7 appears to be one of the most advanced in this field. The Paris-based com­pa­ny has repro­duced the prop­er­ties of a marine worm, Phrag­matopo­ma cal­i­for­ni­ca, which builds sand cas­tles to house its colonies. A water-resis­tant cement ensures the solid­i­ty of the edi­fices. A prop­er­ty that is of great inter­est to the sur­gi­cal community.

From fun­da­men­tal research to med­ical tech­nol­o­gy, the con­cept of bio­mimicry is dri­ving med­ical inno­va­tion. A study8 by the Indo-British strate­gic analy­sis firm Prece­dence Research esti­mates that the bio­mimet­ic med­ical inno­va­tion mar­ket will be worth more than 33 bil­lion dol­lars in 2022 and could reach 65 bil­lion dol­lars in 2032. These esti­mates are undoubt­ed­ly based on a broad def­i­n­i­tion of bio­mimet­ic inno­va­tion, but they point to a trend in which a great deal of research will be enter­ing the mar­ket in the next few years.

Agnès Vernet
1Bouy­er M et al., Bio­ma­te­ri­als (2016) 104:168–81. doi: 10.1016/j.biomaterials.2016.06.001
2Garot C et al., Adv Healthc Mater (2023), e2301692 doi: 10.1002/adhm.202301692
3Bouy­er M. et al., Mater Today Bio (2021) 11:100113. doi: 10.1016/j.mtbio.2021.100113
4Sales A et al. Bio­ma­te­ri­als (2022) 281:121363. doi: 10.1016/j.biomaterials.2022.121363.

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