Featured image above: Professor Melissa Knothe Tate, Paul Trainor Chair of Biomedical Engineering, UNSW Sydney. Credit: Quentin Jones
Melissa Knothe Tate is equally comfortable with a microchip as a Petri dish. It’s the same for her research, which occupies the intersection between biophysics and cutting-edge engineering. “We intentionally go after the hardest research questions, which have gone unanswered because no current method exists to answer them. We develop new approaches and technologies to make the problem tenable.”
One of these new technologies made waves in 2015. “Our turbocharged electron microscope enables anyone to navigate and explore the ecosystem of the human body,” she says. Dubbed ‘Google Maps for the body’, the new imaging technique – originally developed by German high-tech manufacturer Zeiss to scan silicon wafers for defects – allows scientists to zoom in and out, from the scale of a whole joint down to a single cell.
The process uses similar algorithms as Google Maps to cope with the huge amount of data and stitch the images together into one zoomable picture. Not only does this offer unprecedented insight into how body processes work at different scales, but can also image areas as large as the human hip in hours – which would have previously taken decades.
The system cannot yet scan living patients, but is a launching off point to investigating how large scale pathologies like joint failure relate to cellular health, says Knothe Tate.
More recently, Knothe Tate has been applying her unique skills to weaving tissue patterns made by human cells. She optimises and scales the images using computer-aided design software to reveal the precise pattern of fibres of elastin (which makes tissues elastic) and collagen (which makes tissues tough) in tissues. The pattern is then entered into a 3D printing system or a computer-controlled, 19th-century wooden weaver’s loom that can weave up to 5,000 different threads independently.
Tissue patterns that offer strength, elasticity, smart responses and other advantageous properties can be applied to a host of different materials, including nylon, glass, titanium and silk.
“The sky is the limit for multifunctional textiles made in this fashion,” says Knothe Tate.
It opens the possibility for new fabrics, not only in the biomedical industry, but the transport and safety industries too. Her ultimate aim? To make tissue herself.
“We recently had a breakthrough in engineering multicellular architectures using methods found in nature. Once we can form these templates, then the cells do the work of creating the proteins, which get secreted to form tissue.”
– Ben Skuse