The Engineer of Human Body

In November 2019, bio-engineer Dror Seliktar was one of the speakers at Kyiv International Economic Forum. Event Ukraine talked to the Professor about the achievements of bioengineering and asked him how soon we should expect the appearance of people with extended limbs or a printed heart.

Dror Seliktar is the Associate Professor in Technion Faculty of Biomedical Engineering, Israel. He was born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1972, received his B.Sc. in Mechanical Engineering at Drexel University in 1994, and M.Sc. and Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering and Biomedical Engineering respectively from Georgia Institute of Technology in 2000.

At the beginning of the 20th century in Russia, the scientist Alexander Maksimov introduced the term “stem cells” for the first time while making his research on hemorrhage. Later, the presence of other stem cells, not only blood cells, was proved. Today, scientific developments in this area have moved far ahead. Stem cells, being the basis of self-maintenance and renewal of the human body, have become the subject of bioengineering and regenerative medicine. Yes, scientists are already artificially growing human organs suitable for transplantation, but according to Dror Seliktar, the future of bioengineering is to prevent the development of diseases by learning how to control cell renewal and program this regeneration inside of the human body.

Mr. Seliktar, in your opinion, what can modern bioengineering be proud of?

Over the past few years, I have been excitedly watching the direction of studying stem cells, and I am glad that these discoveries are slowly but surely starting to be used in modern medicine. I really see the applied benefits of stem cell research and their application in certain areas of medicine. For example, therapy with these cells to regenerate heart tissue or important organs such as the liver or kidney is already helping a large number of patients. Of course, now it is not on the needed scale, but it is a matter of time. Already today, very important experiments are being carried out using stem cells to treat damaged tissues. This is exciting.

What are the main recent achievements of bioengineering from your point of view?

Last few years I’ve been very excited because the discoveries on stem cells are slowly making their way to the clinic, to the hospitals. So, we actually see that stem cells are applied in certain areas, for example, many people can benefit from stem cell therapy in terms of tissue regeneration: it relates to heart as well as such critical organs as liver and kidney. Of course, we are not there in terms of large scale but some very important experiments are conducted on humans looking at the way these cells are able to treat some tissue injuries. I think this is exiting.

What are the main directions for bioengineering in the nearest future? What is the practical use of them for medicine?

I think the most critical aspect of bioengineering treatment for the near future is trying to address the complexities of bringing the particular product to the hospitals. There are many different complexities associated with that: for example, how to create a product that is safe for many different patients. People may have different response in terms of efficacy. It is possible, for example, that the older patient may not have the same capability to regenerate as the younger one. These issues have to be addressed in a short term. And, we have to try to make the products that are universal for all patients.
In the context of medicine, there is also diagnosis beyond the medical therapy. To make diagnosis quickly, effectively, at a low cost is also a part of bioengineering. And beyond that there are more and more drugs that are used to treat patients and they are not chemicals but actually the products of biotechnology. And, those products have to be engineered. As such, biotechnology engineering also addresses the needs of the evolving farma industry in terms of being able to produce new biological drugs that are not necessary easily done.

Your research interests are in tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. Moreover, you have reached impressive results like creation of new biomaterial called Gerlin. Can you please tell about it?

Gerlin is the discovery that we’ve made in my laboratory in the University in Haifa, Technion. This material is very unique because it is able to be implanted into the body and we can control the rate of natural break down of the material in the body. As a part of the material break down process the stem cells are also recruited to the area where the material is implanted. It will stimulate the repair of the tissue.
The most effective use of Gerlin is for cartilage injuries, cartilage of the knee joint. People who have the injury of the cartilage often pass through the progressive degeneration of the joint. And eventually it becomes so painful that they need a replacement. The replacement is usually metal and plastic and it serves about 10 years only. So, what Gerlin allows us to do is to intervene on the early stage of degeneration process, to prevent the deterioration of the joint. So the joint will become reparative after implantation within about a year.
Since we had started testing that material on the patients in 2009 (we made about 100 surgeries), we got excellent results with that technology. In addition, we are very close to finishing up pivotal studies and will be able to sell this material then to the hospitals for the eventual use. In Europe it is already with a CE mark, in the United States there are still some procedures to go through with Food and Drug Administration in order to start using the product. In Israel it is already possible to make such surgery.
The clinical studies of Gerlin are also taking place in Israel, in Europe and in the United States.

The Engineer of Human Body

How do you see the future of regenerative medicine, 3D printing? Will it be only for reach people or will it be affordable for everyone?

I think some of these technologies like 3D printing are very expensive because they are implemented on individual basis with the patient’s own cells, everything has to be done in a certain manufacturing environment and this can be very, very expensive.
But I think that the future of regenerative medicine is not necessarily going to be just in the printing new tissues and organs but, as I said, in early disease intervention to prevent the eventual need for tissue replacement. If that is the case, the product is going to be widely produced for people of all backgrounds and the government, of course, will support the programs through the local hospitals.

How do you see the future demographic situation on our planet, age and quality of life taking into account the bioengineering technologies?

Living longer is just one aspect; the most important is the quality of life. In my community, we strive to bring technologies that are applicable to mass population but not something very good only for rich people. We want to bring technologies that are injectable or can be taken orally and can help to regenerate.
I think if people are not suffering so much from pain, this will enable then a better quality of life and more reasons to live longer.
Moreover, those technologies, we are working with, are given once in your lifetime. They provide higher quality of life for a longer period of time. And thanks to this, people may want to live longer because they are not constantly in pain. It is a complicated solution but it is definitely something that has to be considered in terms of demographic solutions.
The lifetime is different and it is changing. Sometimes it is not necessarily a matter of medicine being better, but a complex of many social economic and ecological factors. I think, of course, medicine has to alleviate some of the complexities of the end of life, for example, heart diseases and cancer that is still the major problem. But you know, if we are able to use some of these technologies to find a cure for cancer or improve our understanding of what makes cancer progress more aggressively, perhaps we will be able to prevent those deaths in future.

Interviewed by Anna Vishtak