One of Australia’s top minds in biomedical engineering wants to change how we diagnose and treat illnesses by going straight to the source – our cells themselves.
She was named as one of Engineers Australia’s Most Innovative Engineers for 2017, and biomedical engineer Professor Melissa Knothe Tate is not showing any signs of slowing down.
The modern-day Renaissance woman earned the title for her groundbreaking work mapping the human hip using a multi-beam scanning electron microscope – a technology Knothe Tate developed with Zeiss Microscopy – and the Google Maps API.
Users can zoom in from the whole structure of the pelvis down to the nanoscopic terrain of the bone cells and their protein matrix. The pioneering work in biomedical engineering means that people can now study the physical interactions between individual cells, as well as their health.
This means that degenerative diseases such as osteoporosis or osteoarthritis in the bone, or Alzheimer’s and dementia in the brain can be identified far earlier and might be treated before they are irreversible.
More recently, she has been exploring the patterns of structural proteins woven by our cells to create tissues and then attempting to recreate them on a larger scale.
To achieve this, Knothe Tate and her team have developed a novel platform for design and engineering called microscopy aided design and manufacture (MADAMe).
The method uses second harmonic generation and two photon-excitation microscopy to visualise the three-dimensional weave of structural proteins in the tissue.
“These natural weaves are then rendered using computer-aided design software,” Knothe Tate explains in her book Biotextilogy: The cellular catwalk.
“These provide the basis for tissue inspired multidimensional fabrics that are woven using a computer-controlled Jacquard loom.”
In a seamless meshing of science and art, Knothe Tate, her daughter Lillian, and graduate students Joanne Ng and Sara McBride-Gagyi, who also worked with her on the project, recently showcased this work at the Australian Design Centre.
Colourful images of bone and tissue matrices and the weaves they inspired were laid out across the walls, floor and windows of the gallery.
While talking to Knothe Tate, it’s clear to see her genuine fascination with bones and their surrounding tissues.
“Bone does not scar after injury because the cells that inhabit bone are constantly repairing and building anew in such a way that the bone adapts optimally to endure the mechanical environment to which it is exposed, from the arm of the professional tennis player to the bedridden patient,” Knothe Tate said.
“The [periosteum] skin on our bones also serves as a habitat for stem cells. This super elastic, soft skin makes bones super strong under impact loads, shifting from a soft sleeve to become armouring splint, which effectively increases the failure load of the bone in a moment’s time.”
Smart fabrics revolutionising industry
‘Biotextiles’ have applications in a variety of fields from medicine, to fashion and sports wear, to tyre manufacturing and other areas of engineering.
Already Knothe Tate and her team have received funding to develop a compression sleeve for people suffering from lymphoedema, a condition often experienced by cancer survivors and people who have had their lymph nodes removed.
The unique characteristics of the compression sleeve means that it will be able perform the actions normally effected by muscles to push the accumulating lymphatic fluid from the lower arms or legs back up to the heart to be recirculated.
Because the adaptive abilities of tissues to physical, mechanical and chemical stimuli are largely attributed to the patterns that make up the tissue, there has also been interest in using her technology to create surgical implants and as a novel way to deliver drugs.
By mimicking the tissue’s weave, the new material can be made to display the same adaptability. Through computer-aided design and mechanical and physical testing, these properties can be optimised so that drugs can be administered safely and effectively, and implants can behave more closely or better than existing tissues.
Knothe Tate has also been approached to create functional lingerie for women who have had a mastectomy and require unconventional support, but still want to wear something that doesn’t look like a clinical device.
“My favourite bit is to create something new that is not just functional but beautiful and smart,” Knothe Tate said.
The woman behind the weave
During her conversation with create, the source of her passion for craft, creativity and nature quickly became evident.
“I spent most of my childhood outdoors and never tired of building forts in the forest and collecting frogs, rocks, … all sorts of specimens from my surroundings,” Knothe Tate said.
“My thirst for figuring things out through research projects was always there, from keeping a chick incubator in my bedroom to independent genetics studies on fruit flies in the 7th class. I got my first microscope in primary school as well as my first toolkit for woodworking. That microscope is still displayed proudly in my office today.”
Now, as a professor of biomedical engineering at UNSW, she currently holds the Paul Trainor Endowed Chair, an honour which allows her to share her passion for STEM and innovation with her students as well as in Indigenous communities through her outreach program.
“There is so much hidden talent in the world and I feel compelled as well as privileged to help others who might be in a similar situation, to help them help themselves as well as the next generation,” she said.
“My work with Indigenous kids aims to harness their unique cultural strengths to contribute and lead innovative, sustainable solutions for the future.”
Her strength and tenacity have been a major factor in her success as a biomedical engineer.
“Rejection and failure are regular events in the course of innovation and can actually spur on new, even more innovative approaches. I rarely say ‘no’ to requests for help which could be considered unwise,” she said.
“By the same token, I have a hard time taking ‘no’ for an answer if I am proposing something I very much believe in.”
Professor Melissa Knothe Tate is one of create‘s Most Innovative Engineers for 2017. Nominations are now open for the class of 2018. To nominate yourself or someone else, click here.