Super Collagen

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UW scientists create very strong protein to revolutionize bandages.

When you think about all the advances in medicine and medical treatments, it’s hard to believe the bandage — in use since before the time of the ancient Egyptians — is still the go-to for treating wounds and fighting infections. But it is.

However, that reign may come to an end, thanks to a team of UW-Madison researchers who recently announced the creation of the strongest form of collagen known to science.

“It’s by far the most stable collagen ever made,” says Ron Raines, a UW professor of chemistry and biochemistry who led the study, published in a January issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Natural collagen is the most common protein found in mammals, and it’s the main protein in connective tissue — for example, 75 percent of the dry weight of human skin is made up of collagen. For decades, doctors used collagen from cows to treat serious burns and other wounds in humans, but sometimes a patient’s body rejects that tissue. Raines says this “super” collagen avoids that risk.

Furthermore, he says this artificial collagen holds promise as a therapy for conditions such as arthritis, which is caused by a breakdown of the body’s natural collagen and affects more than 46 million Americans. “We’re designing molecules that can promote the healing of wounds in unprecedented ways,” he says.

To make the new form of collagen, Raines’s team substituted two-thirds of the protein’s regular amino acids with less-flexible versions that stiffened the overall structure of the protein and helped it hold its form. “The breakthrough of this approach was the use of rigid analogues that have shapes similar to [the shapes the natural amino acids take] in the folded, functional form of the protein,” explains Raines. The resulting collagen holds together at temperatures far above what it takes for natural collagen to fall apart.

Beyond the medical realm, the collagen has also shown potential in the field of nanotechnology. “We’re working to develop these collagen materials to make new types of nano wires,” says Raines. “[We] take these collagen fibers and coat them with metal, like gold, and we’ve shown that we can conduct electricity.”

Published in the Summer 2010 issue

Tags: Health and medicine, Science

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