The Age of the Cyborg

Photo illustration by Martin Dee
Photo illustration by Martin Dee

UBC Reports | Vol. 55 | No. 1 | Jan.
8, 2009

By Göran Fernlund And Chad Sinclair
Associate Professors
Dept. of Materials Engineering

The melding of artificial materials within the body has long fascinated humans and been the basis for captivating science fiction. From the 1970’s Six Million Dollar Man, to the 2008 movie Ironman, we have been enthralled by the idea of the half-human, half-machine with super-human abilities.

At UBC Materials Engineering, the combination of artificial systems within the human body has a target quite different from those devised in science fiction; it’s the next big thing in the world of biomedical engineering and healthcare.

With age, the human body wears out. And engineered materials—metals, polymers and ceramics—increasingly help repair or replace injured or destroyed body parts. At UBC Materials Engineering, research focuses on improving the biological, mechanical and chemical properties of these materials, allowing us to better aid in tissue repair, make longer-lasting implants and enhance the quality of life.

Assoc. Prof. Rizhi Wang, Canada Research Chair in Biomaterials, and Assoc. Prof. Goran Fernlund collaborate with surgeons, cell biologists and pharmaceutical scientists to develop novel implantable biomaterials and have had great success in improving materials used for hip implants.
Building on the wealth of knowledge in traditional biomaterials for surgical implants, a new biomaterials frontier is being created at UBC in the area of functional nanofibre scaffolds for tissue regeneration and targeted drug delivery.

UBC’s Professor Frank Ko, Canada Research Chair in Nanofibrous Materials, is spearheading efforts in nanomaterials—materials whose dimensions are nearly atomic in size. With these materials Ko is developing novel nano scaffolds for tissue regeneration.

Tissue scaffolds are the next big thing for implants of the future. Like the scaffolding we see on construction sites, the nano scaffolds are being created by Ko to reconstruct damaged tissue within the human body. Burn victims would benefit from scaffolds used to regenerate new skin. Those with failing heart valves or damaged nerves could count on scaffolds to regenerate these parts from within the patient’s own body. As healing progresses, the scaffold, being constructed from a biodegradable material, is absorbed and metabolized by the body while slowly releasing drugs to aid in the healing process.

The key to Ko’s work is his unique technology for making scaffolds from millions of tiny fibres, each acting as a site for tissue growth. He accomplishes this using a novel technique known as “electrospinning” which can be used to fabricate fibres that are 10,000 times smaller than the thickness of a human hair. These nano-fibres, when piled on top of one another, provide a perfect scaffold for new tissue growth.  
Victor Leung, a Materials Engineering undergraduate student who has been working with Ko on developing his electrospinning process for the next generation of scaffolding materials sees a day when biomaterials may be used to generate all kinds of new body parts.

“As we become more sophisticated in our ability to design materials, particularly at the nanoscale, we open all kinds of opportunities for repairing damaged body parts. The potential is really unlimited,” says Leung.

Considering the great strides materials engineers are making in developing materials that are readily accepted by the body and that accelerate the process of recovery and healing, the age of the Cyborg seems not so much science fiction as it does science fact—a good thing given the increasing life expectancy and enduring desire to lead active lives.