Professor Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic Elected to the Institute of Medicine

Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, The Mikati Foundation Professor of Biomedical Engineering and a Professor of Medical Sciences (in Medicine) at Columbia University, has been elected to the elite Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the National Academies. She joins two Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) faculty members and an adjunct faculty member elected to the IOM’s Class of 2014, one of the highest honors in the fields of medicine and health.

—Photo by Eileen Barroso

“I was thrilled to hear the news, this is such a great honor,” says Vunjak-Novakovic, who is also the director of the Laboratory for Stem Cells and Tissue Engineering, co-director of the Craniofacial Regeneration Center, and scientific director of Columbia Stem Cell Core. “My lab is diligently working on developing new technologies for regenerating bone, heart, and lung, and for drug testing in human tissue platforms. We are just entering the era of personalized medicine, and this is a most exciting time to be a biomedical engineer. With all the collaborative efforts between the Engineering School and CUMC, we have a great opportunity to advance personalized medicine in a rather unique way.”

Vunjak-Novakovic was elected into the National Academy of Engineering in 2012, becoming the first woman at Columbia to ever earn that prestigious distinction. With her election to the IOM, she becomes the second Columbia Engineering faculty to become a member of these two preeminent medical and scientific organizations in the world, joining her colleague Van C. Mow, Stanley Dicker Professor of Biomedical Engineering and professor of orthopedic engineering.

A groundbreaking researcher in the field of tissue engineering, Vunjak-Novakovic has created two startups in the past two years. In July 2013, she cofounded EpiBone with her students and postdocs and clinical collaborators from Columbia, including Drs. Nina Tandon, Sarindr Bhumiratana, and Sid Eisig. EpiBone is a revolutionary bone reconstruction company that allows patients to “grow their own bone.” The company has already received several grants (Breakout Labs, SBIR-Phase I, Osteoscience Foundation, Bioaccelerate - Partnership Fund for New York City) and the first round of funding, and is now entering pre-clinical studies of its first product. Based in the newly opened Harlem Biospace, EpiBone 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.

And, just this month, Vunjak-Novakovic has also launched TARA Biosystems, a company for drug testing in human cardiac tissue culture. She and a former student of hers, University of Toronto Professor Milica Radisic, are working with the New York City-based venture capital firm Harris & Harris to address the critical need for more effective processes to evaluate the safety and efficacy of new therapies and new drug compounds. She says that TARA Biosystems will use its platform to provide physiologically relevant human heart tissue models for toxicology testing and drug discovery.

“We are very happy about the progress we are making on all these fronts,” she adds. “Our work is really an exciting collaboration between biology and engineering—these new testing platforms that contain micro-sized functional human heart tissues formed from a patient’s own stem cells are now allowing studies of drug efficacy and toxicity under conditions predictive of human physiology. In optimizing drug regimens for a specific patient and the condition to be treated, we are actually enabling medical treatments that are tailored precisely to our patients.”

Vunjak-Novakovic was a Fulbright Fellow at MIT when she became interested in the use of tissue engineering and emerging technologies to improve and save human lives. Her laboratory works on engineering human tissues for application in regenerative medicine, stem cell research, and disease modeling. Her work is extensively published and highly cited; she has more than 70 licensed, issued, and pending patents, and is a frequent adviser to government and industry. Among her many recognitions, she is a fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering and of the Biomedical Engineering Society; a founding fellow of the Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine Society; a member of the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame, Academia Europaea, the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, the National Academy of Engineering, and now also the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. She earned her PhD in chemical engineering from the University of Belgrade, Serbia.

—by Holly Evarts

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