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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“I’ll never forget when I stared down into the mold and saw those cells begin to twitch with life,” Vunjak-Novakovic says. “I thought the table was shaking at first.”

The link between electricity and heart cells didn’t surprise many biologists, since the heart starts to beat in a fetus only when it receives an electrical signal. But it was another example of a crucial variable that other tissue engineers had not yet tested or incorporated into their laboratory techniques.

Today, Vunjak-Novakovic is working on a heart study with a team of Columbia faculty that includes Sherman; his fellow cardiologists Robert Kass, Shunichi Homma, and Lynne Johnson; biomedical engineer Elisa Konofagou; and stem-cell biologist Christopher Henderson. With grants from the National Institutes of Health and the private Helmsley Charitable Trust, they are cultivating heart cells in a bioreactor that Vunjak-Novakovic has configured to mimic the physical environment of a heart chamber. With her colleagues’ guidance, Vunjak-Novakovic has replicated the heart chamber’s temperature, moisture level, electrical stimulus, and even the gentle flushing motions of blood flow.

“We each benefit from this arrangement,” says Kass, the Alumni and David Hosack Professor of Pharmacology and the chairman of that department. “Scientists who study the electrical properties of heart cells, as I do, have traditionally been limited to observing isolated cells. In Gordana’s laboratory, we’re now able to see how groups of heart cells interact with one another in a living system.” 


Vunjak-Novakovic now believes she is on the cusp of creating a heart patch and facial bones.

She recently tested a patch in mice that helped repair the rodents’ hearts after they had been damaged by mild, localized heart attacks.

“This was one of the first heart patches to provide much benefit to its recipient, even in small animals,” says Vunjak-Novakovic. “What’s often happened, until now, is that the new tissue wouldn’t beat very enthusiastically along with the rest of the heart.”

Challenges still must be overcome before Vunjak-Novakovic can create a heart patch for humans, though. Chief among them is properly connecting the new tissue’s tiny blood vessels to the organ’s existing vascular system. This plumbing problem, she says, remains a frustration to all biomedical engineers working on complex tissues.

“The blood vessels in the lab-grown tissue always seem to close in on themselves, shutting themselves off from the outside,” says Vunjak-Novakovic, who is currently seeking grant support for a heart-patch study on pigs. “That’s why our results with the mice are exciting. It’s going to be even more challenging to make it work in larger animals, but we’ve got a good shot.”

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