Research story

Could new biomaterials transform how we understand and treat diseases?

Understanding how human cells and tissues operate can help us fight diseases and develop new drugs. Creating lab-based models of tissues is one way to do this, but it has its challenges. In their research, Dr Chris Spicer and his team are tackling this head-on using newly engineered biomaterials. 

A scientist shines a light on a lab flask stood next to a set of test-tubes

Patrick Shepherd / Wellcome

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Dr Chris Spicer

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Human tissue research is mostly performed by biologists, and there are far fewer chemists exploring this important area. However, I’m a firm believer in working across disciplines to uncover new ideas.  

That’s why, as a chemistry lecturer at the University of York and a trained synthetic chemist, I’m really interested in working at the intersection of chemistry, biology and human health, and in using chemical principles to address biological questions. 

I became aware of the challenges in biomaterials science, particularly the need to develop more accurate tissue models, during my post-doctoral research. On starting my independent research in York, I was therefore interested in how we could improve the materials that people use by enhancing their ability to give cells potent biochemical signals. 

Now I lead an interdisciplinary team of scientists working at the interface of chemical biology, materials science, and tissue biology to achieve this goal, and deliver better lab-grown tissue models that can help advance our understanding and ability to treat disease.

Challenges in tissue modelling research  

A major challenge with tissue models is making them accurate enough to give us an insight into human health and disease. Many models fail to recreate the biology of the tissues found in the human body.  

This is largely because the materials used to grow tissues in a lab cannot provide cells with the key biological signals they need to grow into mature and fully functional tissues. 

This is a big problem for researchers interested in biological processes related to human health and disease. If the models don’t accurately recreate the diseased tissue, our ability to gain new understanding or test new medicines is limited. 

While studies can be conducted using animal models, such as in rats or mice, there are ethical implications associated with this. Moreover, the physiology of a rat or an animal is very different from that of a human, so the results aren’t always reliable.

That’s where our research comes in.

Using new biomaterials to advance tissue modelling  

We’re designing specially engineered biomaterials to deliver tissue models that better mimic the conditions in the human body.   

One of the materials we use a lot are hydrogels. Hydrogels replicate some of the properties of biological tissues, and their three-dimensional structure can act as a scaffold for cells, helping them to grow, expand and communicate with each other.

We functionalise these gels with peptides, proteins and carbohydrates – key biomolecules that cells rely on to develop – in a highly modular manner, so that our technologies can be applied across many disease and cell models. 

This research could have big implications for drug discovery. By testing new drug compounds on more accurate tissue models in labs, rather than isolated cells or animal models, we can better understand how they will work in the human body.

It would not only allow for more accurate science but also help to reduce the need for animals in biomedical research.

What’s next for the research?  

Looking ahead, our work aims to advance the understanding and treatment of a range of human diseases, particularly those that involve tissue damage such as osteoarthritis. 

The modularity of our research means that the techniques and technologies we develop will be widely applicable across the field of biomedical science. This could help researchers study a range of disease processes and biological questions. 

Researchers and pharmaceutical companies worldwide would benefit from having accurate tissue models for drug discovery, allowing them to screen for biological activity at an early stage.

Our research could help to improve this process and lower drug attrition rates – the percentage of drug candidates that don’t make it to market after testing and development.

Ultimately, this could improve the lives of patients suffering from diseases over the next 20 to 30 years.

To me, discovery research is about having the freedom to go after big ideas where you don’t always know what the outcome will be.

Through Wellcome’s
Career Development Award, we have built an interdisciplinary team of synthetic chemists, cell biologists and material scientists to do exactly that. Together, we're advancing science and developing techniques that have the potential to significantly improve human health. 

  • Dr Chris Spicer

    Chemistry Lecturer, University of York

    Dr Chris Spicer is a Lecturer in Chemistry at the University of York, where his interdisciplinary group develop new chemical tools to address important challenges in tissue biology and disease.