Faculty Tech Talk: A Revolution in Regenerative Medicine

Regenerative medicine has come a long way from simply designing replacement parts from metals and polymers. Recent breakthroughs in the use of transplanted cells, biomaterials, and nanotechnology have sparked a revolution in the field, opening up unprecedented possibilities for rebuilding intricately complex tissues, organs, and joints. And as the second in Columbia Engineering’s new series of faculty Tech Talks revealed, some of the most promising research in these areas is happening right here on campus.

On November 29, four renowned faculty members from the Department of Biomedical Engineering joined Dean Mary C. Boyce and a crowd of students at Carleton Commons for a look at how Columbia engineers are transforming medicine’s ability to repair and sustain the human body.

Four renowned faculty members from the Department of Biomedical Engineering joined Dean Mary C. Boyce for a look at how Columbia engineers are transforming medicine’s ability to repair and sustain the human body.
—Video credit: Columbia Video Network

Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, University Professor and Mikati Foundation Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Medical Sciences, discussed her pioneering work on functional tissues and biomaterials, recovering donor lungs, and designing integrated “organs on a chip” systems for both pharmaceutical testing and honing in on precision medicine tailored to individuals’ idiosyncratic physiologies. Professor Clark Hung described his research using allografts to supplement joint tissue compromised by trauma or arthritis, while Professor Helen Lu broke down her work engineering complex tissues at the interfaces of soft tissue, bone, and novel biomaterials. Professor Sam Sia rounded out the panel discussing his tissue engineering efforts implanting endothelial and stem cells to promote microvascular growth.

In a lively and wide-ranging discussion, the professors touched on topics ranging from discovering their research passions to their many collaborations across New York’s vibrant biotech scene. We’ve excerpted a few edited highlights below:

Q: Among the most exciting recent developments is how researchers have begun manipulating the mechanical, electrical, and chemical principles at work in tissue environments as a way to more naturally mimic the complex and multifunctional-structured materials of the body. How does your work make use of these advancements?

Vunjak-Novakovic: We try to exactly do what nature does—it’s all about replaying normal processes in the lab to replicate the conditions of natural tissues. Over all the many years of evolution, specific cells have been used to do one specific thing, so our job is actually to trick the cells and make them feel that conditions are normal, like “you’re in the body, life is good, do your job.” If we can mimic whole body physiology on a chip, then we can derisk the whole process of developmental testing of drugs, while controlling conditions and measuring physiology in real time.

Lu: One question is, how much of nature should we imitate without overengineering the system? Fundamentally, what are the key design rules that are essential for making and connecting different parts? When you’re trying to build a joint, there’s muscle, tendons, ligaments, cartilage, and bone, and they don’t function in silos. It’s fascinating to appreciate what nature has done and be able to distill what is most critical to eventually supersede nature.

Q: Research translation, from the lab to the real world, is accelerating at an ever-increasing pace. What’s been your experience in bringing work to the public?

Hung: When I went into cartilage repair, everybody was interested in regenerative cell-based therapies for fixing potholes in the tissue that cushions our joints. A lot of people who spent many years doing that started companies and decided “it will take me ten years and millions of dollars to get this approved by the FDA, so I’m going to just use an FDA-approved material, relying on whatever host cells are there do what they do. That way I can at least have a clinical impact.”

In our own experience, working with living allografts that are already used in clinical practice, were much more straightforward. Being from cadavers, they are considered minimally manipulated and governed by tissue banks rather than under the purview of the FDA. We’ve learned that, if companies can show the FDA that they can consistently handle these tissues in a sterile way and screen for infectious diseases, then it can go right into the market after some testing. However, as native osteochondral allografts are not in sufficient supply to meet clinical demand, there are parallel efforts in our laboratory to fabricate tissue-engineered allografts for cartilage repair.

Sia: The possibilities for regenerative medicine and therapeutics—using cells as materials and a platform—are almost limitless from an engineering perspective. The traditional approach for therapeutics is still used, but it has hit a roadblock in recent years. Is the future of medicine trying to find a blockbuster drug, that magic bullet? Or is it taking more of an engineering approach, of mimicking nature and making use of stem cells’ regenerative properties? We’re really just starting on that front, and already there have been huge successes, such as immunotherapy. It’s still hard and takes a long time, but we have the ability to go directly after problems and find solutions.

by Jesse Adams

500 W. 120th St., Mudd 510, New York, NY 10027    212-854-2993