Synthetic tendon project co-led by Trinity scientists gets €1m funding

23 Sep 2021

Image: © Oleg Breslavtsev/

An international team of scientists will use genetic engineering and nanoscience to develop synthetic tendon and ligament implants.

A group of scientists from Trinity College Dublin (TCD), Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) and Penn State University in the US has received a €1m grant to develop synthetic tendons and ligaments.

Funded by the US National Science Foundation, Science Foundation Ireland and Northern Ireland’s Department for the Economy, the four-year project will use biomedical engineering and nanoscience to develop the implants modelled on embryonic tendons.

Future Human

Severe damage to ligaments and tendons can be treated by taking soft tissues from another part of the body or a cadaver – a process that the scientists say is expensive and inefficient.

But now, using genetically engineered soft tissues modelled on how tendons develop in the embryo, the group will try to improve the production of artificial tendon and ligament replacements in patients. The process will replicate molecular events that cause tendon development by delivering nanoparticles and mechanically stimulating cells.

“Research shows that tendon cells are sensitive to movement and stimulation,” said co-principal investigator Spencer Szczesny, who is an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Penn State University.

“We will determine if the muscle stimulation impacts cell behaviour and how they form the tissue around them. Our hypothesis is that muscle activity early on stimulates tendon and ligament cells to grip onto collagen instead of neighbouring cells, forming a connection to collagen fibres, which is critical to forming a healthy tendon.”

‘Truly interdisciplinary project’

By studying normal tendon development in chick and mouse embryos, the team will try and establish gene editing approaches to alter how tendon cells communicate with each other and their environment.

The biomedical engineers based in Penn State University will then measure these developing tendons throughout their growth stage and collaborate with the TCD team to map out mechanical, structural and biological features. They will also investigate whether movement within the egg plays a role in tendon development, similar to how a baby ‘kicks’ in the womb.

Paula Murphy, who is professor of zoology at TCD and a co-principal investigator on this project, said that it is “truly interdisciplinary” and integrates international expertise in biomechanics, mechanobiology, developmental biology and materials science.

“We are particularly enthusiastic to bring a developmental perspective to understanding tendon biomechanics and to addressing the critical barriers that have – to date – prevented the development of functional load-bearing tendon and ligament replacements.”

The scientists will also use nanoparticles to influence tendon growth – making specific genes discovered from the embryonic study turn on or off. This part of the project will be led by co-principal investigator Helen McCarthy of QUB, who is an expert in nanomaterial drug delivery.

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic