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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“My interest in engineering was quite intellectual and abstract,” she says. “I’ve always loved solving complex puzzles. I didn’t think much about the applications.”

Over the next few years, though, as a young faculty member at the University of Belgrade, she became captivated by the chemical interactions that take place among molecules within living organisms. In 1986, she won a Fulbright fellowship to pursue this interest and chose to spend her year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There, she caught the attention of a researcher named Robert Langer, who was trying to purify human blood for use in medical experiments. He was looking for someone to create new machines to remove toxins from blood.

The two began a collaboration that continued after Vunjak-Novakovic returned to Belgrade, and in the years that followed she made biannual trips back to Boston. During one such visit, in 1991, ethnic tensions in her homeland boiled over into war.

“It became clear that it would be good to leave Yugoslavia,” says Vunjak-Novakovic. “So I began spending more time in Boston.” Concerned colleagues at MIT, upon learning in 1993 that her visa was about to expire, lobbied successfully to get her a permanent position that allowed her to stay in the US with her husband and young son.

Around the same time, Vunjak-Novakovic’s career took another turn: Langer informed her that he had received a grant to do something called “tissue engineering,” and asked if she would like to join the project.

“Tissue what?” Vunjak-Novakovic asked him.

Vunjak-Novakovic consults with Jeffrey Ascherman, a craniofacial surgeon, in her laboratory at Columbia University Medical Center / Photograph by John Loomis

LIFE’S COMPLICATIONS

The term “tissue engineering” had been coined a couple of years earlier to describe what were the first serious attempts to create living tissue through artificial means.

For a young engineer interested in this challenge, Vunjak-Novakovic was in the right place. Langer was about to develop some of the field’s most important lab techniques. His main contribution would be to create three-dimensional molds, or scaffolds, that could be seeded with developing cells and then put safely into a person’s body. These lattice-like scaffolds are typically made out of natural molecules, such as collagen, or synthetic materials designed to be biodegradable. This approach is still used by most tissue engineers today.

“One of Gordana’s roles in my lab was to manage the flow of nutrients in and out of that mold,” Langer says. “That’s extremely complicated. You’ve got multiple fluids swishing about, and you need to control where, when, and in what quantities they’re touching the developing cells.”

When Vunjak-Novakovic opened her own laboratory at MIT in 1993, her first project was to try to create cartilage, the flexible connective tissue that cushions joints. Many of the first tissue engineers, including Langer, were trying to make cartilage because it is among the body’s simpler tissues and seemed like a good place to start. Government funding agencies and private companies, recognizing the huge market potential for helping people with arthritis and other joint problems, invested heavily in these projects.

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