In 2000, a team of archaeologists in the ancient Egyptian city of Thebes uncovered the mummified remains of a young woman called Tabaketenmut. The big toe of her right foot was missing. In its place was a wood and leather contraption tied to the limb with string, which researchers believe to be the earliest example of a prosthetic body part.
This rudimentary device – developed more than 2,000 years ago to help a woman walk – is often cited as one of the first and most primitive examples of bioengineering, the use of artificial components to replace damaged or absent parts of the body.
Today the term has a much broader meaning and includes disciplines such as materials science, biology, mathematics, engineering and computing. And we’ve come an incredibly long way since – thanks to primitive bioengineering – Tabaketenmut walked the earth.
Just last month, we heard the astonishing news that scientists have been able to grow a functioning kidney in the lab. And researchers in the US have developed a high-tech ‘lung on a chip’ to help them study infections and other diseases.
Now Cancer Research UK scientist Professor Fran Balkwill is looking to make a similarly monumental step forward in cancer biology by bioengineering the first ever three-dimensional artificial tumour.
She hopes the work will underpin the development of new treatments that attack the interactions between cancer cells and healthy tissues that unwittingly support them, known as the microenvironment.