Collagen from animals is used to rebuild tissue destroyed by burns and wounds. It is also employed in plastic surgery to augment the lips and cheeks of people 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 to synthesize it for use in applications ranging from new wound-healing technologies to alleviating arthritis.They could not 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.

Now a team from the University of Wisconsin-Madison discovered a method for making human collagen in the lab. This synthetic collagen can have broad use in medicine and replace the animal products that are now used.

The researchers discovered a way to make the long, slender collagen molecules, in essence, by having the protein assemble itself. What was required was a way to give the collagen snippets that scientists could easily make a way to "self assemble" into the long, thin fibers of native collagen. The team was able to modify the ends of the snippets so they could fit together and stick to form long collagen fibers.

The new work may also lay the foundation for applications in nanotechnology – such as microscopic sensors that could be implanted in humans to confront the effects of disease – because it gives scientists a way to precisely manipulate the lengthy molecules and add elements to collagen that confer new abilities. "We can make collagen that duplicates nature exactly, but we can diverge from that when it is desirable," says Ronald T. Raines from UW-Madison.; Source: University of Wisconsin-Madison