Stem cells, found in the body, can essentially be ‘programmed’ to become any other cell. They are being studied for making artificial skin and organs.

IIT Hyderabad scientists use discarded skin of fish eels to develop stem cells
Health Discovery Tuesday, August 27, 2019 - 14:40

Stem cell research has long been a promising area in medicine because these cells are capable of regenerating and repairing damaged tissue in the body. Now, in what could be a groundbreaking development, a team of three researchers from Indian Institute of Technology in Hyderabad have found a way to produce collagen from marine waste. Concentrated collagen has been found to help stem cells grow.

The existing methods of extracting collagen are from animal sources, raising concerns about transmission of pathological illnesses. For instance, bovine (cow) skin, commonly used to extract collagen, has led to concerns regarding the spread of diseases such as mad-cow disease. These reservations make non-mammalian sources of collagen all the more appealing to scientists, which is what makes the IIT-Hyderabad scientists’ discovery all the more exciting.  

Collagen procured from marine waste

“Collagen plays a large part in cell development; it is essentially like the concrete foundation of a building. Not only is commercially available collagen expensive, costing up to Rs 20,000, the collagen that is largely used is derived from animal sources and with this comes a large risk of contracting pathological diseases from the animal tissue,” explains one of the researchers, Dr Mano Govindharaj, to TNM.

He along with two other scientists, Dr Subha Narayan Rath and Uday Kiran Roopavath found that the skin of eels and fish, which are often discarded as waste, can be utilised to produce collagen. 

The researchers from IIT Hyderabad

“We have a lot of marine sources in India, eel is one such example. There are a substantial number of people who are dependent on eels as a staple. The skin of an eel is very thick so it is removed before cooking and thrown out. Even in the markets and harbour areas where people purchase fish and eel, the skin is removed and then sold. The skin is then just dumped as waste material which contributes heavily to environmental pollution. What we’ve found is that the skin that is otherwise treated as waste is a great source of collagen,” Dr Govindharaj adds. 

Marine eels used by researchers

In order to obtain collagen (a protein) from the eel skin, the researchers treated the skin with a combination of chemicals which help break down proteins. The collagen was then combined with an algae-based gel. Next, they used 3D printing techniques to assess the structure of the collagen to determine if it would be a good base for stem cells to proliferate. They recorded significant stem cell growth using the eel-skin derived collagen, which in theory makes it the ideal material to generate artificial tissues.

What are stem cells and why are they important?

Stem cells are a type of cell found in the body which can essentially be ‘programmed’ to become any other cell of the body. They hold immense value with regards to artificial tissue construction and development. In theory, this would allow scientists to be able to produce artificial skin, which can be used in place of existing skin grafts for burn victims. 

Scientists are also studying how stem cells can be used to develop and repair organs such as heart, liver and kidneys. 

If the current study goes well, scientists will be able to have an easier and more affordable means to develop stem cells.

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