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Medical research blooms with ‘paper flower’

T V Jayan New Delhi | Updated on February 14, 2021

IIT-Kanpur researchers seek to grow human skin cells from bougainvillea

Who will say no to a ‘bloom-like skin’, especially if it is not just for beauty but also for health?

Taking inspiration from nature, a team of researchers from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kanpur has sought to harvest artificial skin from bougainvillea flowers.

The researchers have demonstrated that the flowers of these thorny ornamental bushes have the right ingredients to help “grow” living skin cells — which can have a gamut of industrial and medical applications, potentially.

The IIT-K team, led by professor of chemical engineering, Sri Sivakumar, was attracted to this interesting proposition when their counterparts from TCS’ Tata Research Development and Design Centre (TRDDC) approached them two years ago. The TRDDC team wanted the IIT researchers to create in the lab a computer-simulated model of artificial skin that they had developed.

‘Ideal scaffold’

“For creating artificial skin, we needed a scaffold. If it is a naturally-printed 3D model, it can be biocompatible as well as not have issues relating to biodegradability,” said Sivakumar, who is also the coordinator for the Institute’s nanoscience and advance imaging centre.

The task of finding a natural material that can be an ideal scaffold was taken up by Prerana Singh, a student in the department of biological sciences and bioengineering at IIT-K, and also doing Ph D under Sivakumar. Singh, who graduated recently, collected nearly 80 plant species from various places. After screening all of them, the team, which also included Auhin Kumar Maparu, another graduate student of Sivakumar, arrived at the conclusion that bougainvillea flowers, also called paper flowers, are the right choice as they had all the properties — nano-roughness as well as a vein structure quite similar to human skin cells — that the scaffold needed.

Subsequently, Singh removed all plant cells from the flowers collected from IIT-Kanpur campus and grew mammalian skin cells over that scaffold. “These animal cells grew nicely on these scaffolds. What we found is that this is the right scaffold to grow this kind of skin cells,” Sivakumar told BusinessLine.

Besides, the scientists also validated the artificial skin by looking for various biomarkers such as collagen III and collagen IV, normally found in skin cells. These are proteins that are expected to be secreted naturally in the human skin. And the same happened while the skin cells grew over this template, according to Sivakumar.

Major application areas

Artificial skin has potential for a few major applications. One area of promise is drug screening. Similarly, it can be used for screening new cosmetic products. Currently, for screening drugs and cosmetics, hundreds of thousands of animals are sacrificed.

There is strict regulation now on the use of animals to test cosmetic products. Such a directive is already out in the European Union and India, too, is coming out with one, the IIT-K professor said.

Another potential application could be in skin-grafting for burn victims and for treatment of wound injuries. “We are currently validating this in animal models. Once this is successfully done, with the help of TCS, we will find the right kind of medical practitioners to validate it in humans,” said Sivakumar.

Published on February 14, 2021

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