Context - Scope

As our population ages, an increasing number of Australians are suffering from impaired healing of damaged or diseased tissues. This major problem is compounded by a chronic shortage of organs and tissues for transplantation and reconstructive surgery. The emerging field of tissue engineering aims to address these issues through the use of living cells in supporting scaffolds to replace the function of diseased or damaged tissues. Over time, these ‘living’ constructs may become seamlessly integrated into the patient. Accordingly, the global market for tissue-engineered devices is growing by 14% per annum, and is estimated to be worth US$ 20 billion by 2020 (Medical and Healthcare Marketplace Guide 2001-2002; Dorland's Biomedical). In this context, the National Institute of Standards and Technology estimates that tissue engineering solutions could potentially address conditions responsible for half the healthcare costs in the US. With a proven track record in basic biomedical science and engineering, coupled with a track record in the commercialisation of medical technologies, Australia is well-placed to participate in this area, improving the quality of life for all Australians with substantial direct and indirect economic benefits.

Tissue engineering is a truly multi-disciplinary endeavour. However, whilst there is a multitude of institutions across the country that focus on different aspects of this emerging discipline, there is no co-ordinated systematic structure to bring together the requisite disciplines. The ARC Research Network for Tissue Engineering (ARNTE) addresses this gap by building on existing expertise, infrastructure and local initiatives to create a broad-based network embracing specialist expertise and knowledge across the country. ARNTE encompasses all Australian groups engaged in tissue engineering research, as well as a diverse range of disciplines which impact on and contribute to the field. ARNTE results from the careful assembly of expertise from a wide range of ARC Special Research Initiatives:

  • cells, matrix and polymers (SR0354797)
  • intelligent surface modification (SR0354583)
  • ethical, legal and social aspects (SR0354803)
  • expatriate Australian researchers (SR0354861)

As can be seen from this figure, ARNTE members are situated all around Australia, representing all major geographic regions.

On a broader scale, ARNTE members are part of an international research community and the Network is supported by global initiatives such as Tissue Engineering Society International. ARNTE’s role will be to co-ordinate Australian activities in this exciting and emerging area.

Science and Technology. ARNTE has identified three key challenges currently facing this emerging field, and will be the platform that supports fundamental research into these crucial issues:

  • scaffold design and manufacture
  • creation of smart surfaces
  • cell interactions

Crucially, ARNTE will focus on research that lies at the intersections of these areas, enabling researchers to benefit from the synergies that spring from these unusual discipline interfaces (see Research Directions [link to this page]). By adopting a mechanistic approach, the Network will involve groups from a wide range of disciplines, brought together by a common interest in specific challenges currently facing the Australian tissue engineering community. In this way, project teams will be assembled across discipline and geographic boundaries, and their findings will impact both within and beyond the field of tissue engineering.

Social Studies, Ethics and Law. In acknowledgement of the significant ramifications associated with tissue engineering for the wider Australian community, ARNTE will also support research activities directed at issues core to the integration of this technology with society, such as ethics and the legal/regulatory environment. ARNTE will facilitate exploration of the following issues:

Technology Resource
The Australian business environment is largely dominated by small to medium enterprises (SMEs), most of which do not have the resources to provide the essential, but often expensive, technologies needed to develop tissue engineered products. In many cases, these SMEs are unaware of the innovative facilities and expertise housed in Australia's universities and research institutions. It is also true that these capabilities remain largely untapped by agencies outside the local research community. ARNTE will provide enhanced access to Australia's tissue engineering resources for industry, acting as a conduit for problem-solving and as a provider of expert advice, coordination and integration.

ARNTE will develop a range of outreach programs, from specialist workshops and conferences to school visits and public awareness initiatives. For example, ARNTE members have grown tissue sculptures, "semi-living" objects, by culturing cells on artificial scaffolds in bioreactors to create a new artistic palette. A unique set of issues and controversies has arisen because these living-cell tissue constructs will not be transplanted into the body. On the one hand these concern the practicalities of the procedure itself, while the acquisition of living cells for artistic purposes has focused attention on the ethical and social implications of creating "semi-living objects".

ARNTE participants have shown they have the expertise and commitment to educate the broader community about tissue engineering:

  • Approximately 50% of ARNTE participants have played an active role in educating the community about tissue engineering
  • ARNTE participants have educated the community by giving presentations to school students and teachers and worked with the mainstream media (e.g. television, newspaper and radio) to produce educational features on tissue engineering.

Advisory Role
ARNTE will act as an advisory body to inform, for example, the establishment of a regulatory framework and the development of ethical standards. It will also assist Government in policy making in tissue engineering.