Tissue Engineer Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic Earns Columbia’s Highest Academic Honor

Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic has been appointed University Professor, Columbia University's highest academic honor.
Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic has been appointed University Professor, Columbia University's highest academic honor.
—Photo by Jeffrey Schifman

Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, a pioneer in the engineering of functional human tissue for use in regenerative medicine, has been appointed to the rank of University Professor, Columbia University’s highest academic honor. Her research has led to the development of novel biomaterials and scaffold architectures for growing bone grafts for facial reconstruction, the creation of electromechanically functional cardiac tissue, the recovery of donor lungs for transplant, the design and use of “organs on a chip” for precision medicine, and other innovations. She is the first professor from Columbia Engineering to receive this honor.

In announcing Vunjak-Novakovic’s appointment on April 13, University President Lee Bollinger highlighted the social impact of her research, her extensive partnerships in academia and industry, her outreach and mentoring of students and young faculty, and her entrepreneurial success as founder of three public-spirited biotechnology companies.

Behind the scenes with Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic.

“The discoveries emerging from her laboratory have led to new approaches for treating injuries and complex diseases and also have supported the development and evaluation of therapeutic drugs,” Bollinger wrote. “Professor Vunjak-Novakovic has displayed a special talent for crossing disciplinary boundaries in service of scientific discovery, an inclination that will serve her well as University Professor.”

Vunjak-Novakovic, currently the Mikati Foundation Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Professor of Medical Sciences, and director of Columbia’s Laboratory for Stem Cells and Tissue Engineering, spread that praise to her colleagues and students.

“I am receiving this honor only because of my colleagues here at Columbia and my talented students who make me a better person every day,” she said. “I could not be happier about being the engineer selected to join this group of most prestigious scholars. I am grateful about being in this fantastic environment, and humble about this unexpected distinction.”

Among their many projects, Vunjak-Novakovic and her research team have developed ways to grow bone grafts that can match a patient’s original jaw bone for facial reconstruction surgery to repair injuries, disease, or birth defects. They have engineered thick, vascularized, and electromechanically functional cardiac tissue by culturing stem cells, research that has led to a heart patch that could be laid over injured heart tissue to restore normal function in someone who has suffered a heart attack. Her lab, which integrates the use of stem cells, biomaterial scaffolds, and bioreactors to engineer bone, heart and lung tissue, has also developed cell micropatterning technology to study the initiation of developmental asymmetry and diagnose disease. One of her latest studies describes an advance in organ transplants in which her team developed a way to recover damaged donor lungs. Her team has also been working on an integrated heart-liver-vascular model system, sometimes referred to as "organs on a chip," that mimics the function of the human body for evaluating therapeutic drugs

Time-lapse footage of donor organ rescue.

Vunjak-Novakovic also has a strong track record as a biotech entrepreneur. In 2013, she and a group of students and Columbia colleagues founded EpiBone, a revolutionary bone reconstruction company that grows bones from patients’ own cells. The company uses computed tomography scans and fat-derived stem cells to engineer the patient’s own living bone in the precise anatomical shape of the defect being treated. A second company that she cofounded, TARA Biosystems, develops predictive cardiac tissue models for safer development of new medicines. The models start with stem cells to produce heart cells and cardiac tissue that mimics adult heart muscle. Vunjak-Novakovic is the board chairwoman and scientific advisor for a third company, MatriTek, which has developed tissue-specific biomaterials for researchers.

Vunjak-Novakovic earned her PhD in chemical engineering from the University of Belgrade, Serbia, in 1980. She was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 2012 and the National Academy of Medicine in 2014, both prestigious honors in their respective fields. She is a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, a fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, a fellow of AAAS, and a member of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, and has been inducted into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame, among several other honors.

Her newest title, University Professor, is a rare honor at Columbia. Vunjak-Novakovic joins an elite group that now has 16 current professors, including economist Joseph Stiglitz, neuroscientists Richard Axel and Eric Kandel, and author Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Past University Professors included such thought-shapers as literary critic Lionel Trilling and cultural and political writer Edward Said.

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