Creating human tissue: cutting-edge research to heal the heart
Suwan Jayasinghe tells Sarah Brealey how illness in his family drove him to become a researcher. Now he's helping to create human tissue using cutting-edge technology.
Suwan Jayasinghe was inspired to become a researcher by health problems in his own family. He says: “My grandmother survived six or seven heart attacks and it was on the 7th or 8th that she passed away. I was about 15 or 16 when she died and it had a great effect on me.”
Twenty years later, Suwan is a group leader at University College London, working on techniques that could help to repair damaged hearts. He’s so driven that he starts work at 4.30 or 5am. “I find four hours sleep to be pretty much enough,” he says.
“John Fenn, a former colleague who won a share of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2002, said to me ‘Your life on this planet is finite, so if you are thinking about sleeping, Suwan, wait till you die.’ He was a brilliant guy.”
Change in focus
Suwan trained as an engineer, but his work has become increasingly focused on biology. “When I finished my PhD my father was not well, he had a problem with a blood vessel in his brain. They operated on him but he seemed like a different person afterwards, and his memory was much worse.
“I think this, on top of the pain and distress that my grandmother went through, made me think there is no point in developing a fast car or a fast airplane when there are so many more important problems.
I just like to see a person healthy
“I just like to see a person healthy. Not being able to do what you want on a day to day basis because of your health can really hurt. So if I can contribute to removing ill-health or reducing it, then that’s very important to me.”
Suwan was also a keen rugby player during his undergraduate and master’s degree, playing for Saracens. “At that point I stopped – I decided I might need the two brain cells I have remaining!”
Suwan is working on bio-electrospraying and cell electrospinning technology (technologies pioneered by him), which uses thousands of volts to create living tissue that could potentially be used to repair damaged parts of the body, such as the heart.
There are many potential uses for new human tissue, and Suwan has nearly 100 different collaborators on different research projects. He is currently funded by the BHF for two projects. One, with Dr Anastasis Stephanou of University College London, looks at creating a cardiac patch that we can use to repair a heart, for example if it has been damaged after a heart attack. The other is with Bijan Modarai of King’s College London, looking at how to encourage growth of new blood vessels, in particular in the condition limb ischaemia, which when part of the blood supply in a limb is blocked.
How the new technology works
First, a needle is filled with a mixture of human cells and a natural polymer such as collagen (the polymer creates a scaffold between the cells).
The technique uses very high voltages – up to 20,000 volts - but very low current, which means that the cells are not killed. (The same principle allows stun guns to immobilise victims without killing them.)
The needle is connected to a power supply, with an electrode beneath it, and the electrical charge between the needle and the electrode means the mixture can be placed precisely, as droplets or as continuous threads, and used to build up human tissue in three dimensions.
Suwan says: “It was funding from the BHF that highlighted our work and got us where we are today. Now many other agencies are interested in funding us. We are very grateful to the BHF. I think the BHF has a long standing track record of taking chances like this.”
I was given something by this country and I would like to pay it back
Suwan says he wouldn’t want to be doing anything else. “Even if I was offered much more money, I wouldn’t do it. Last year I was offered a position in the United States by a drug company, the money was four times what I get here, but it was not what I want to do.
“I came to the UK to study for my degrees and never left. I was given a scholarship for my PhD and it is in the back of my mind that I was given something by this country and I would like to pay it back.
“Another thing that drives us is the competitiveness to be the first, to be pioneering something.”
He adds: “The icing on the cake for me personally would be to see this technology being used to treat patients in future. That would be a great result for the efforts of our team and the fundraising efforts of the BHF.”
See the amazing pictures of Suwan's work
Read how Sam Boateng is working hard to solve the complex problem of heart failure, which has killed members of his own family
Read how Mike Dodd came to do his "dream job" researching hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which affects his father and which he carries the gene for himself
1998 Bachelor of Engineering, Brunel University
2000 Master of Engineering, Brunel University
1999 - 2003 PhD, Queen Mary, University of London
2003 - 2004 Post-doctoral researcher, Queen Mary, University of London
2004 - present Group leader, University College London