Ultrasmall Peptides Repair Spinal Disc Damage
New ultrasmall peptides that can be used as building
blocks for a wide range of regenerative applications such as spinal disc replacement and
cartilage repair have been developed by scientists at the Institute of Bioengineering and
Nanotechnology (IBN), the world’s first bioengineering and nanotechnology research
institute. These peptides spontaneously assemble in water to form hydrogels, which
resemble collagen, a major component of connective tissues found in cartilage,
ligaments, tendons, bone and skin.
IBN’s latest discovery offers promise for orthopedic patients, such as those suffering
from degenerative disc diseases. Degenerative disc disease is currently the predominant
cause of disability amongst the adult population, affecting 85% of the population by the
age of 50. It is a type of back pain that is caused by the wearing away of the nucleus
pulposus, a jelly-like material in the spinal disc, which is made up of collagen fibers. The
spinal disc helps to absorb vertical pressure and provides flexibility to the spinal column.
There is a strong market demand for orthopedics and in particular for spinal replacement.
The worldwide spine market has been growing at a compound annual growth rate of
about 8-10% over the last seven years.
The unique class of peptides developed by IBN has similar gel strength as the jelly-like material in the spinal disc. Dr Charlotte Hauser, IBN Team Leader and Principal Research Scientist elaborated, “There is a huge unmet clinical need for a prosthetic device that can inhibit or repair early-stage disc damage. Our biocompatible peptide hydrogels could be
injected into the body to stimulate disc regeneration or used for artificial disc replacement. This peptide-based approach could offer an alternative to spinal surgery by delaying or even abolishing the need for invasive surgery. Our ultrasmall peptides can
also be easily translated to clinical use because they are easy and cost-effective to
Published recently in the leading nanoscience and nanotechnology journal, Nano Today,
IBN’s self-assembling peptides imitate nature by forming ordered structures using
molecular recognition. This self-assembly approach is emerging as an important new
strategy in bioengineering because it allows the peptides to form easily into various
structures such as membranes, micelles and gels. The essence of this ‘Lego’-like
technology lies in the unique design of the peptide.
IBN’s self-assembling peptides were rationally designed comprising only simple 3 to 7
amino acids, making them extremely small compared to conventional peptides, which
usually require 16 to 32 amino acids. IBN’s peptide molecule also contains a
characteristic motif – a water-insoluble ‘tail’ and a water-soluble ‘polar head’. This
amphiphilic property allows the random peptides to self-assemble into hydrogels with
uniform and stable fibrous structures within minutes after coming into contact with water.
Unlike existing hydrogels, IBN’s process does not require any enzymes or chemical
agents to link the fibers together.
Microscopic images revealed that the structure of IBN’s peptide-derived hydrogel bears
a striking resemblance to collagen fibers. Tests have demonstrated that IBN’s hydrogels
are mechanically strong, heat-resistant and biocompatible with a variety of human cells.
With a high water content of up to 99.9%, these hydrogels have fibrous structures that
look like porous honeycombs due to the large number of water-containing cavities. By
changing the concentration of the peptide, the researchers were also able to control the
stiffness of the hydrogels, making them suitable for use as biomaterials for tissue
engineering applications in regenerative medicine, such as for the treatment of
degenerative disc disease, skin replacement and stem cell-related therapies.
In a separate study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,
the IBN scientists reported that the structure of the ultrasmall peptides closely resembled
amyloid fibers, which are abnormal constructs that are the hallmark of many fatal
neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson, as well as Type II Diabetes.
This novel class of peptides can therefore also be used as an excellent model system for
the development of drugs targeted at the prevention or control of amyloid fibers.
“IBN aims to create new biomaterial platforms based on nanotechnology. This unique
class of ultrasmall peptides are biomimetic, and have excellent potential as cell culture
substrates and tissue engineering scaffolds,” added Professor Jackie. Y. Ying, IBN
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