Of all of the materials that make up our bodies, nothing is more ubiquitous than collagen. It is the most important structural protein in the body, reinforcing connective tissue, bones and teeth, and forming long, fibrous cables to strengthen tendons. Collagen forms sheets of tissue that support the skin and every internal organ. There is nothing in the body, in fact, that does not depend in some way on collagen.
In medicine, collagen from animals, principally cows, is used to rebuild tissue destroyed by burns and wounds. Commonly, it is employed in plastic surgery to augment the lips and cheeks of starlets and others seeking perpetual youth. Catgut, the biodegradable sutures made from cow or horse intestines and used in surgery to minimize scarring, is also a form of collagen.
But for such a commonplace and useful protein, collagen has defied the efforts of biomedical researchers who have tried mightily to synthesize it for use in applications ranging from new wound-healing technologies to alleviating arthritis. The reason: Scientists were unable to synthesize the human protein because they had no way to link the easily made short snippets of collagen into the long, fibrous molecules necessary to mimic the real thing.
But now a team of scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, writing this week (Feb. 13, 2006) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), reports the discovery of a method for making human collagen in the lab.
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