How Studying Frog Embryos Is Helping Advance Tissue Engineering By Leaps And Bounds

Oct 17, 2017

The potential of tissue engineering is huge -- think replacement cartilage or artificial organs -- but current techniques are inefficient. 

If an engineer were building a house, they'd consider the properties of the materials they were using and the physical forces acting upon them.

If they're building biological tissue, they'll want to do the same.

Lance Davidson at his office in Pitt's Biomedical Science Tower 3.
Credit Joaquin Gonzalez / 90.5 WESA

"That's the beauty of physics, right?" said Lance Davidson, professor of bioengineering and head of the Mechanics of Morphogenesis Lab at the University of Pittsburgh. "Math and physics are universal principles and they apply as much to embryos as they do to bridges and buildings."

Davidson uses microscopic tools to measure the rapid tissue expansion in frog embryos and understand how they grow and respond to different stimuli. Because frog embryos are laid externally in the wild, they are naturally resilient to things like temperature variation or physical contact, which makes them relatively easy to work with in the lab.

Frogs and humans are very much alike from a genetic perspective, and the processes that Davidson observes in the frog embryos are similar to the human ones that tissue engineers want to recreate. 

However, they don't yet have an effective way to make the ideal blueprints.

"Tissue engineering now is about trial and error. Build 10,000 things and one of them may work," said Davidson.

Davidson's goal is to apply what he learns about these physical processes in his research to the creation of a software design tool that would save tissue engineers substantial time and effort.

Although he's optimistic about the potential for such a tool, Davidson said its implementation is not yet on the immediate horizon.