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What is a Tissue Engineer?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Nancy Fann-Im
  • Last Modified Date: 06 November 2016
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A tissue engineer is a biomedical professional who grows tissue for use in therapeutic procedures ranging from treating crushed nerves to implanting whole organs. This field integrates aspects of biology, genetics, informatics, and biomedical engineering. People in this field typically have advanced degrees in medicine, science, or both. Some people refer to tissue engineering as “regenerative medicine,” although this is actually a slightly different field.

Tissue engineers work with cells in culture to be able to produce a wide variety of biomaterials. Some work on building replacements for damaged tissue like tracheas, skin, and urethras, coaxing cells to grow on a scaffold into the right shape. Using donor cells from the patient, the tissue engineer can create a replacement that the body should not reject. This can improve quality of life for people with organ and tissue damage from cancer, accidents, and other life events.

The process of building entire organs is more complex. As of early 2011, tissue engineering had not quite succeeded, but the groundwork had been laid. Growing organs in culture requires cultivating multiple types of cells on a complex matrix to create a functional organ, or using tools like three dimensional printers to create organs according to a schematic. The ability to grow organs in culture would address the critical shortage in organs around the world, allowing people with liver, kidney, lung, and heart disease to access organs for transplant.

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A tissue engineer can also create biomolecules like specific proteins and growth factors. These can be useful in therapeutic treatment to trigger the patient's own body to start growing new tissue or to support the healing of a tissue graft. A tissue engineer can address a variety of types of injuries with replacement tissue, and patient outcomes can improve with the use of engineered tissue when compared with donor materials.

In regenerative medicine, the focus for the tissue engineer is less on building tissue outside the body, and more on encouraging the patient's own body to regenerate damaged tissue. One example is the use of gel mixtures to treat patients with severed or crushed nerves. These mixtures create a matrix for nerve cells to grow on, regenerating the patient's nerves in situ. Seed cells of various types can be useful for therapeutic medicine and will be available for early intervention and treatment, allowing doctors to start seeding immediately in a patient with severe injuries.

For people who want access to the latest in tissue engineering, the best option is to enroll in a clinical trial. People can talk to their doctors about currently open trials and determine if they are eligible.

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