FEATURE

Hearts & Bones

Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic is at the forefront of regenerative medicine. Can her laboratory-grown body parts really work?

by Adam Piore Published Spring 2012
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Growing human facial bones is just one of the seemingly insurmountable medical challenges that Vunjak-Novakovic is now close to solving. She is also growing strips of heart tissue that beat with life, small pieces of lung, and chunks of cartilage that she hopes doctors will one day put into people like spare parts into automobiles.

When stem cells populate this sponge-like mold, shown here atop a plastic form used to produce it, they will grow into a piece of human jawbone / Photograph by John LoomisLike many engineers in the nascent field of regenerative medicine, Vunjak-Novakovic works with adult stem cells taken from bone marrow or fat deposits. These cells are powerful tools for medical researchers because they are highly versatile, able to differentiate as replacement cells throughout the body so that our organs, bones, and muscles can recover from normal wear and tear. Once the stem cells are extracted, Vunjak-Novakovic places them into a three-dimensional mold in the shape of the tissue she wants to create. But it takes more than the right-shaped mold to tell these cells what type of tissue to become.

“Stem cells take their cues from the nutrients they receive, the intensity of electrical impulses they feel, how much oxygen they get, and even how much movement they experience,” she says. “All these factors, in addition to the physical dimensions of their surroundings, indicate to the stem cells what part of the body they’re in. We need to create an artificial environment that mimics all of that.”

When this works, as it has in a few initial experiments, Vunjak-Novakovic says, she feels a sense of wonder, as if she’s glimpsing the mystery of life itself: a tiny cell, containing within its DNA a blueprint for the entire body, develops into the one type of tissue she needs.

Because reproducing the right conditions for growth is so difficult, only a handful of biomedical engineers have ever succeeded in growing tissues that could be put into people. And these have been relatively simple tissues, like skin and blood vessels — nothing as complex as bone, lung, or heart tissue.

“If we manage to create a human bone, we will have participated in something amazing,” she says. “A brand-new bone derived from a patient’s own body would function very smoothly, since it would be a perfect genetic fit. This will be a game changer in medicine.” 

BETWEEN WORLDS

Vunjak-Novakovic can look up from her desk on the twelfth floor of CUMC’s Vanderbilt Clinic and gaze upon her birthplace, Belgrade. On the far wall hangs a large aerial shot of the city, with its closely clustered medieval buildings, bracketed by the Sava and Danube Rivers.

In the early 1980s, when Vunjak-Novakovic was working toward a PhD in chemical engineering at the University of Belgrade, the prospect of growing body parts never occurred to her. She was interested in the forces and motions created by the intermingling of gas bubbles and tiny solid particles in liquids. Her research involved mathematical modeling and experiments in enclosed reactors, and was applicable, most obviously, to industries that rely on fermentation, like food production and the manufacture of penicillin and other antibiotics.

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