Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine

This week in the Regenerative Medicine Class, Aaron Goldstein talked about tissue engineering and regenerative medicine on Tuesday, and on Thursday we had a discussion about the first section of the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Since we’ll explore Thursday’s topic on two more occasions, this week’s question is about tissue engineering.

So, class: how would you explain the relationship between tissue engineering and regenerative medicine to someone outside the fields? Are they the same thing? Is there a different focus? Are the participants different? You are welcome to describe or post Venn Diagrams or other graphics if they help you explain things a bit better.


  1. Tissue engineering is simply a technique that creates products using cells as building blocks. There are three main parts to each product: cells, architecture, and cell support molecules. The cells populate the product and will grow and reproduce when the product is used. The architecture is a structure that gives the cells a base to attach to and aids in their growth. The cell support molecules stimulate the cells to grow into the desired cell type for the product. Tissue engineering products range from bone grafts in the medical field to artificial skin for fabric testing in industrial fields. The technique of tissue engineering is not always used for a medical goal.
    Regenerative medicine is the part of medicine that uses a variety of techniques, including tissue engineering, in order to repair damage, cure disease or enhance. Techniques in regenerative medicine are always used for a medical goal. Regenerative medicine and tissue engineering can be thought of as two circles that intersect partially, but not completely because tissue engineering can be used to make non-medical products and regenerative medicine includes other techniques besides tissue engineering. When tissue engineering is the technique used for a regenerative medicine goal, then these two fields intersect. Typically, engineers use tissue engineering to create products that are used in different applications, including in medicine. Doctors use the tissue engineering medical products for regenerative medicine goals in their patients, i.e. to help bone heal faster and fully using a bone graft. These are very broad fields, so not all tissue engineering products are made by engineers and often, products are made by teams of people from different backgrounds. Likewise, regenerative medicine is practiced not only by doctors, but also veterinarians, physical fitness trainers, and researchers among others.

  2. In class our faculty members have asked a few times “how would you describe [X] to your Grandma?” So this is a conversation to my Oma about the relationship between tissue engineering and regenerative medicine:

    “Think about legendary couples, like Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip, Adam and Eve or you and Opa… Each person is an individual but when they are together they can do great things by using each other’s knowledge or resources. Regenerative medicine uses components from the body like cells or components that cells need for growth. Tissue engineering is about building tissue; it uses the cell knowledge from regenerative medicine but also has it’s own knowledge on how to build structures for the cells to go on so that a tissue can be formed. But it’s not just that they can bring different things to the table, they also have to work together to make the whole thing work. For example if there was no combined knowledge on how to make the cells stick then the tissue couldn’t be made.” It is at this point that my Oma pipes up …
    “So they have to communicate, like a real-life couple too?”
    “Yep”, I say, “otherwise they couldn’t use their knowledge to combine into one product.”

    It never occurred to my Oma that regenerative medicine and tissue engineering were the same. That would be like telling her that her and Opa were the same! Like individuals, they each have their own things that they do by themselves. For example regenerative medicine products are used to treat arthritis and tissue engineering makes “smart” textiles without each other. This does not mean that they don’t work together at the same time or on the same project. They have to.

    Using this analogy, most of the time both divisions have the same overall goal to create products that will enhance health care in the future. When they work together their focus is the same, but at times, when they are working to strengthen their components, the focus or semi-goal might be different. For example, a stem cell researcher aiming to enhance the anti-inflammatory properties of stem cells may be focused on regenerative medicine primarily but could know what tissue engineering could offer to help achieve the overall goal.

    Like focus, the participants can be different or overlap depending on what goal is being achieved. For example, engineers, cell biologists, chemists and physicians are some of the participants that are involved in regenerative medicine, tissue engineering and the part where they overlap. For each, the role they play may be different or the amount of input they have could vary. Even regenerative medicine projects that have minimal to nothing to do with tissue engineering can benefit from consultation with a biomedical engineer to see if tissue engineering concepts could enhance outcomes, or if the findings could be used for tissue engineering purposes. The opposite would be true for tissue engineering projects that are removed from regenerative medicine.

    1. Sophie,
      I like your analogy of regenerative medicine and tissue engineering being like a successful couple-it does a good job of describing the key similarities and differences between these two fields. Like a husband and wife, these areas can work and accomplish goals separately, but they also complement each other. Tissue engineering uses an engineering-focused mindset to create and adapt biological tissues for uses both within and outside of medicine; while regenerative medicine uses a clinically-focused mindset to develop therapies like stem cell treatment and organ transplants. As you mentioned, tissue engineering and regenerative medicine can have shared goals and common participants as well as working independently of each other. I would also add that (like a couple) they often have shared challenges. For example, tissue engineering and regenerative medicine come together in attempts to make organs for transplants. Tissue engineers work on the scaffolds and components, while clinicians focus on the cellular aspect and clinical details. Both fields face the common challenge to take a synthesized organ to a functional state: we have the ability to make a scaffold and grow cells on it, but this “organ” needs to be able to function in the body. This requires acceptance by the donor’s cells, cell-cell communication within the organ, and revascularization to allow the transplanted organ to live. This challenge is common to both tissue engineering and regenerative medicine, and experts in these fields need to work together to find answers.

  3. On Wikipedia, one version of tissue engineering, the author describes that “tissue engineering, also called as regenerative medicine by some people.” It shows a potential common misunderstanding about regenerative medicine and tissue engineering. There might be some people that think tissue engineering is the same as regenerative medicine, but tissue engineering is one approach of regenerative medicine. Tissue engineering uses cells to build tissues, such as organs, skin, and bones. This can be used to replace or repair damaged tissue, as well as creating something not for medical purposes. Regenerative medicine also uses cells to develop some biological things, but it is not limited to tissues but is still used in medical field. In this sense, tissue engineering is an approach of regenerative medicine by creating tissues for medical uses, but regenerative medicine contains not only tissue engineering, but also other approaches, such as materials science, biology, and medicine.

    Regenerative medicine and tissue engineering are both interdisciplinary projects, but they are not always done by the same participants. Participants come from various backgrounds and teams might have different members depends on the project goals. Let’s say a project is to create a muscle for carrying things with elasticity, materials scientists, biologists, and engineers will work together to develop the muscles. In this case, it is tissue engineering research, but it is not necessarily regenerative medicine because it is not for medical use. However, if there is a project to create human livers for organ transplantation from cells in the lab,, engineers and doctors will work together to create it, I This is an example of tissue engineering and regenerative medicine.

  4. This is a conversation I have with my parents and friends on several occasions, when I am trying to explain to them , what exactly is my research all about. Essentially I start out by referring to common medical problems we as a society face at large today. For example, the shortage of organs for transplantation, or the fact that a lot of diseases still exist for which there are no treatment options available. Back in India, there is a lot of buzz about umbilical cord banking which is the new fancy of people who can afford it. Ads in the media beg questions about what exactly is so valuable about the umbilical cord. Which is a starting point to explain what a stem cell is. I start out with the very basics, explaining that a stem cell is any cell that can mature into a desired cell type, given the fact that different organs and systems in the human body contain different kinds of cells. But not all cells have this ability, which make the stem cells all the more precious.
    But stem cells are only one component of an intricate recipe for the creation of new organs in the lab. Organs in the body are made up of not only the cells, but the scaffolds that hold the cells together, much like constructing a building. Then again, simply providing a foundation to which cells may adhere is not enough. You need stimuli, biochemical and mechanical, to direct the cells towards the the creation of a functional organ.
    Regenerative medicine is the all-encompassing science that brings together the different scientific perspectives essential to creating functional organs for example. Tissue engineering is simply one facet of regenerative medicine. We need the mechanical stimuli and knowledge of materials required to construct a functional graft, but this is not enough. One should understand the way a stem cell works, how it responds to its environment and how manipulating the cellular environment can determine its fate.
    Traditionally, to “regenerate” would be the ability to self-replenish a lost arm for example. However, since humans are not yet capable of that feat, we resort to our knowledge of science to make organs in a lab.
    Lastly, regeneration is not just about creating organs. Our bodies do have limited capabilities to replenish for example, blood cells, or can sustain minor injury. This is the very basic form of regeneration. The “medicine” aspect teaches us to provide “booster shots” of stimuli to enhance our intrinsic capabilities to regenerate or replenish functional losses.

  5. Regenerative medicine is the umbrella term that includes all research on self-healing. More specifically, regenerative medicine research capitalizes on the body’s own processes in order to create and repair fully functioning tissues. Tissue engineering is a subset of regenerative medicine where doctors combine scaffolds, cells, and biologically active molecules into functional tissues.
    If I was explaining this to someone outside of the field, I would use more simple terms. Regenerative medicine is research where scientists work to get the body to repair itself, which is different from tissue engineering that more specifically focuses on inserting various factors to create a fully functioning organ. These factors include cells and tissues like blood vessels, and may go even as far as including the entire organ itself. Both are very complicated and require different cells in the body to communicate with each other in an organized fashion.


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