Ancient Bones Inspire Modern Healing Techniques

By Richard Harth
Ancient Bones Inspire Modern Healing Techniques Image
Associate Professor Joseph Orgel with team member Olga Antipova, research assistant professor
Photo: Michael Goss

Futuristic medical treatments may draw on insights gleaned from a pair of dinosaurs that became extinct between 68 and 80 million years ago. Joseph Orgel, IIT associate professor of biology and biomedical engineering, is leading a research team that is studying how protein sequences persisting in dinosaur bone may offer clues for understanding closely related collagen forms found in humans. Its findings, published in the science and medicine journal PLoS ONE and featured in Nature, could usher in a new era of collagen-based medical applications.

The team examined peptide sequences from two prehistoric creatures, defying long-held assumptions that collagen degrades to non-existence over such extreme time spans. “Even if the collagen samples had survived only thousands of years, it would be profound,” Orgel says.

Orgel reasoned that the persistence of these collagen remnants was due to their location within bone, which is naturally mineralized in living tissue. Fossilization of the bone fragments further protected them from bacterial decomposition.

But there was more to the story.

The team discovered a consistency in the protein sequences that managed to survive degradation. When compared with collagen sequences observed in humans and rats, it became clear that the dinosaur collagen snippets belonged to regions that were physically sheltered within the ropelike structure of the protein and thus, protected from the ravages of time.

“Parts of the collagen molecule are obscured until the cell cuts into the surface of the fibril or when the fibril is injured, say, in the context of a sports injury,” Orgel explains. “When either of those processes occur, these previously sheltered regions actually provide instructions to the cells in tissue about what to do next. So collagen is not just a scaffolding-it’s an instruction manual as well.”

Wound-healing techniques that employ collagen dressings are already widespread. More exotic therapies may be used eventually to treat collagen-related diseases, including osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis, interstitial heart ailments, and other conditions.

Perhaps most exciting is the prospect for producing replacement body parts-including joints, vertebrae, and skin-and the creation of transplantable organs built on a scaffolding of collagen and seeded with the recipient’s own stem cells. If successful, the technique could provide a limitless supply of donor organs that are not subject to graft-host rejection.