Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, university professor of Medical Sciences at Columbia University, literally grows the stuff of hearts and bones.

The Mikati Foundation Professor of Biomedical Engineering and the Director of the Laboratory for Stem Cells and Tissue Engineering, Vunjak-Novakovic investigates how to build tissue for human use, to repair organs damaged by disease and injury. Vunjak-Novakovic is an elected member of the National Academy of Medicine, as well as an elected member of the National Academy of Engineering and of the National Academy of Inventors.

She will discuss her work in the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC Maury Strass Distinguished Public Lecture at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 13. Her talk, titled, “Engineering Human Tissues for Medical Impact,” will take place at 2 Riverside Circle in Roanoke, Virginia. 

Vunjak-Novakovic and her team have grown bone grafts to match a patient’s original jaw bone for facial reconstruction surgery to repair injuries, disease, such as the joint dysfunction known was, or birth defects. This advancement in bone tissue engineering provides all the advantages of the body’s original jaw bone, according to Vunjak-Novakovic. 

The researchers also engineered thick, vascularized, and electromechanically functional cardiac tissue, by culturing stem cells on a scaffold perfused with culture medium containing oxygen carriers to mimic blood flow. This research may lead to a heart patch that could be laid over injured heart tissue to restore normal function in someone who has suffered a heart attack.

Vunjak-Novakovic refers to the cultured stem cells as the actual “tissue engineers,” as they are the ones building the tissue. 

“Dr. Vunjak-Novakovic is a pioneer and leading intellectual light in the science of engineered biomaterials to repair the damaged human body including some of the most challenging and complex functioning tissues and organs.  Her recognition by the communities of medicine, engineering and inventors with concurrent elected memberships in each of those prestigious academies speaks profoundly to the esteem in which her colleagues hold her and her work,” said Michael J. Friedlander, executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and Virginia Tech’s vice president for health sciences and technology.

Her lab hosts the Bioreactor Core of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Tissue Engineering Resource Center, which houses imaging instrumentation that allows for controllable models of high biological fidelity, permitting real-time observation of the factors mediating self-renewal and differentiation of stem cells. 

Vunjak-Novakovic earned her undergraduate and doctorate degrees from the University of Belgrade in Serbia. She also completed a Fulbright fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before joining the faculty at Columbia University. She was recently elected to the Advisory Council of the National Institute for Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering at the NIH, received the Lifetime achievement of Marquis Who’s Who, the Robert A. Pritzker Award of the Biomedical Engineering Society, and was elected as chair of the College of Fellows of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering. She serves on numerous advisory boards and councils and on the editorial boards of eClinicalMedicine, published by The Lancet, Science Translational Medicine, Tissue Engineering, Regenerative Engineering and Translational Medicine, and Current Opinion in Chemical Engineering.

The lecture is free and open to the public. A reception will precede the talk at 5 p.m.

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