At present, collagen is used in various skin care products and moisturizers and the researchers believe that the synthetic collagen found may prove useful as a scaffold for regenerating new tissues and organs from stem cells.
"Our work is significant in two ways," claimed Rice's Jeffrey Hartgerink, the lead author of a new paper about the research in Nature Chemistry. "Our final product more closely resembles native collagen than anything that's previously been made, and we make that material using a self-assembly process that is remarkably similar to processes found in nature."
Too early to substitute medically
The associate professor of chemistry and bioengineering said it's too early to say whether the synthetic collagen can be substituted medically for human or animal-derived collagen, but it did clear the first hurdle on that path; the enzyme that the body uses to break down native collagen also breaks down the new material at a similar speed.
Hartgerink said scientists must next determine whether cells can live and grow in the new material and whether it performs the same way in the body that native collagen does. He estimated that clinical trials, if they prove warranted, are at least five years away.
Collagen is the most abundant protein in the body, and is a key component of many tissues, including skin, tendons, ligaments, cartilage and blood vessels.
Animal-derived collagen, which does have some inherent immunological risks, is the form of collagen most commonly used in many cosmetic products as well as inreconstructive and cosmetic surgery.
Difficulties in development
Despite the abundance of collagen in the body, recreating it has not been easy for scientists, and the Rice researchers suggest this is because of the complexity collagen exhibits at different scales.
The example they give is that, just as a rope is made of many interwoven threads, collagen fibers are made of millions of proteins called peptides. Like a rope net that can trap and hold items, collagen fibers can form three-dimensional structures called hydrogels that trap and hold water.
"Our supramolecules, fibers and hydrogels form in a similar way to native collagen, but we start with shorter peptides," continued Hartgerink.
With the aim of mimicking collagen's self-assembly process as closely as possible, Hartgerink explained his team have spent several years refining its design for the peptides.
A copy of the research paper is available here