High-Tech Frontiers: Manufacturing New Tissue to Replace Tissue Damaged by Disease and Trauma with Dr. Jennifer Elisseef

The ‘Nifty Fifty (times 4)’, a program of Science Spark, presented by InfoComm International, are a group of 200 noted science and engineering professionals who will fan out across the Washington, D.C. area in the 2014-2015 school year to speak about their work and careers at various middle and high schools.

Meet Nifty Fifty Speaker Dr. Jennifer Elisseef

Jennifer Elisseeff_2015 Nifty Fifty Speaker 2Each year in medicine the low availability of donor tissue and organs for transplantation grows even more acute, but scientists -- working in an emerging, high-tech frontier called tissue engineering -- are helping to address the crisis by exploring ways to grow such tissue in the laboratory using stem cells and other bio-components.

Tissue engineering  (sometimes also known as regenerative medicine) is the science of designing and manufacturing new tissue -- such as skin, bone, corneas and heart valves -- to restore impaired organs and replace body parts after disease or trauma.

While advances in tissue engineering may be new, the concept of this science is not, says Jennifer Elisseeff, a noted researcher at Johns Hopkins University who is at the forefront of regenerative medicine investigation. "Scientists have been working in this field for more than two decades exploring its possible applications," she explains.

Internationally known for her research, Jennifer is an associate professor and the Jules Stein Chair in Ophthalmology at the Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins, in addition to serving as Director of the university's recently-established Translational Tissue Engineering Center.

Her biomaterials and tissue engineering laboratory focuses on developing new biomaterials and minimally invasive technologies to repair and rebuild lost tissues, while investigating stem cells and novel approaches to musculoskeletal tissue engineering. In her work, she collaborates with such clinical departments as plastic surgery, orthopedics, ophthalmology, and otolaryngology (ear, nose and throat specialists).

The promise of tissue engineering is especially exciting because it enables patients' own cells to be used, and as a result, the chances of the body rejecting the new tissue or organ are greatly minimized, Jennifer explains.

This science stands to have the greatest immediate impact in the field of eye surgery, where cornea transplantation is the most common transplant procedure in medicine. In the United States alone, surgeons perform 40,000 cornea operations each year. Corneal tissue, however, is in tight supply in this country, and worldwide there is a dire shortage.

Advances in tissue engineering are also expected to yield promising results in the future for orthopedic disease, such as arthritis, specifically in the area of soft tissue regeneration, cartilage repair and wound healing. "The science will bring new products to market to help people delay, and eventually avoid, joint replacement." Jennifer says.

Recently, she and her lab team have received international attention in their field for using hydrogels (a polymer-based material upon which cells can develop into new tissue) as a scaffold for tissue engineering in orthopedics, in addition for using such approaches to develop an artificial cornea.

"Understanding mechanisms of cellular interactions (both cell-cell and cell-material) and tissue development on scaffolds is critical to advancement of the field, particularly in applications employing stem cells." she says.

Dr. Elisseeff received her Bachelor's degree in chemistry from Carnegie Mellon University (graduating with honors), and her Ph.D. in medical engineering from the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology.

In 2004, Jennifer co-founded Cartilix Inc., a high-tech startup venture that translated adhesive and biomaterial technologies for treating orthopedic disease. This company was, acquired by Biomet Inc. in 2009. Later that year, she founded Aegeria Soft Tissue and Tissue Repair, startups which focus on soft tissue regeneration and wound healing.

She has received numerous awards and honors, including: the Carnegie Mellon Young Alumni Award, Arthritis Investigator Award from the Arthritis Foundation, Yasuda Award from the Society of Physical Regulation in Medicine and Biology. She was named by Technology Review magazine as a top innovator under 35 in 2002 and her research was cited among the top 10 technologies to change the future. In 2008, Dr. Elisseeff was elected a fellow in the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering and a Young Global Leader in the World Economic Forum.

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