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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Meanwhile, Vunjak-Novakovic thinks she is close to revolutionizing the treatment of some craniofacial problems. Recently, she has been developing a method for growing jawbones and cheekbones to help people who have suffered traumatic injuries or been born with congenital deformities, like many of the children that Jeffrey Ascherman sees. Children could benefit the most from her work in this area, Vunjak-Novakovic says, since full-grown adults typically have the option of receiving plastic prosthetic bones. But even adults may benefit from lab-grown bones, because prosthetics can cause side effects, like inflammation, and they need to be replaced after ten or fifteen years.

To discover the right conditions for growing heart tissue, biomedical engineers in Vunjak-Novakovic’s laboratory stimulate heart cells with electricity in these two culture dishes / Photograph by John Loomis

“We’re now able to grow a full-size jawbone or cheekbone within three weeks,” she says. “And doctors say the wait would be worth it, in many cases.”

Bones, too, are very difficult to engineer. In addition to the problem of connecting them to the body’s vascular system — all bones have at least one or two blood vessels — there is the additional complication of convincing the body’s ligaments, tendons, cartilage, and muscle to hold them in place. Vunjak-Novakovic thinks she’s found a solution. She is now about halfway through the study in which Sidney Eisig, the oral surgeon, has given pigs jawbones that Vunjak-Novakovic created using their own stem cells. Preliminary results suggest that the bones are binding properly to the native connective tissues. Vunjak-Novakovic won’t disclose exactly how she accomplished this, but she says it involves the precise timing of the bone’s implant.

“Basically, you cultivate the bone in your lab until it’s ready to function in the body, but not so long that it starts to think of itself as an independent system,” she says. “You put it in the body the moment nature is ready.”

Learning to work with nature is, to Vunjak-Novakovic, the essence of regenerative medicine. She regards herself not as a creator of tissue but as a sort of lab-coated shepherd guiding the body’s own powers of growth and healing.

“The only real tissue engineers are the cells in our body,” she says. “The people on my team are toolmakers, builders. We make little physical environments that help cells do what they’re capable of doing. If your bone breaks, it wants to grow back. But maybe it’s gotten old and cannot recover like it used to. We’re tricking stem cells only in the sense that we’re putting them in an environment where they can feel how young and strong the body is capable of being again. I believe that.”

Adam Piore ’94JRN is a contributing editor at Discover. His work has appeared in Newsweek, Condé Nast Traveler, and Mother Jones.

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