What do actress Daryl Hannah, musician Jerry Garcia and silent film comedian Buster Keaton have in common?
A four-fingered hand.
Each had a digit chopped off in a childhood accident — and a stub left over to prove it.
Now senior bioengineering major Arnold Kim is developing devices that could help bring amputated fingers back to full size.
Kim is creating small, implantable scaffolds by using chitosan, an organic compound that comes from crustacean shells, and alginate, which is derived from seaweed. These biodegradable devices will be used to keep stem cells in place until a near-functional human finger grows.
Since the finger has many parts and organization levels, it’s important for it to remain in place to function correctly, Kim wrote in an e-mail.
Dr. Chris Allan, a hand reconstructive surgeon at Harborview Medical Center and an assistant professor of orthopedics, is a co-mentor of Kim. He told the UW Engineered Biomaterials newsletter Insider that he hopes this type of research will help find a better solution for prosthetic limbs.
Kim became a part of the project last summer as a clinical research intern. After attending an informal lecture about Allan’s research, Kim was inspired to help with tissue engineering and regenerative medicine.
“The idea of being able to harness the body’s natural ability to regenerate to treat debilitating medical conditions like finger amputation captured my heart,” he said.
Though Kim has worked on several quarter-long projects, this is his first yearlong research stint. He said his biggest challenge is motivation, since progress is coming slowly.
The student researcher is now preparing to place the devices in animals to see how well they function in living beings. By the end of the project, the model will have a bone-like tissue at the core with fleshy tissue around it.
Kim is hopeful that artificial fingers will be made available to patients in the future.
“It’s a very debilitating condition, as you can imagine, that affects many people both in the U.S. and worldwide,” Kim said. “We hope that this research will bring us one step closer to regrowing a truly functional finger.”
Illustration: Microsoft Clipart.
The Daily of the University of Washington Press Release (02/07/08)