Your research career started in chemistry, but you made the transition to biomedical engineering. Why?
ELISSEEFF:I worked as a chemist doing fundamental polymer development, but I always had an interest in medicine. I found a place in graduate school where I combined the polymer and materials engineering background at MIT with medical applications at Harvard. There, I really dabbled in medicine and was really connected with physicians and clinical problems. Being a chemist, I had the repertoire of tools and materials that we could manipulate and work with to solve clinical problems.
And now you’ve moved on to stem cells?
ELISSEEFF: We now are trying to understand the differences and therapeutic benefits of adult versus embryonic stem cells. Adult stem cells, we’ve found, are really good at secreting things to help with the repair process, so we use our material models to see how cells talk to each other. Embryonic cells don’t seem to be secreting as much stuff for repair, but they are pretty good at building tissues, whereas the adult cells are a little slower at building tissue. So we are trying to understand the different potential mechanisms by which these two cell types might operate clinically, in order to design materials and therapeutic strategies to leverage that.
Do you have anything you are developing for the clinic? ELISSEEFF: We are working with the military on cranial facial reconstruction, focusing on the soft tissue part, which shapes the face. We take fat tissue and mechanically and chemically process it, so we are left with a biomaterial that doesn’t have any of the oils or the cells. And then when we put it back, we get new tissue that fills in the gaps. It really forms an architectural blueprint for new soft tissue reconstruction.
Another thing we’re working on is a new bio-adhesive. The adhesive is meant to prevent leakage of the intestine or blood vessels after surgery. We’ve used it to glue any tissue you can think of and it really forms a missing gap in surgical tools today.
Lastly we’re collaborating with a start-up company using a soft reconstruction material that you can inject under a defect in the skin. We have these LED lights that you shine over the defect on the skin to solidify and cross-link the reconstruction material underneath. The idea is that it stays around longer than the cosmetic fillers being used today.
You recently sold your first start-up company and are now collaborating with a different company. What determines whether you decide to collaborate with a company or create your own?
ELISSEEFF: For something really new and different, it might be more efficient to put a start-up together. But if there are companies that really have an expertise in a technology then it might make sense to license a product and they’ll be able to get it out faster. It was a huge learning experience for me, setting up my first company, but I think having the experience actually allows us to do a better job developing something from the start.
--Interviewed by Vanessa McMains
Jennifer Elisseeff on using biomaterials to develop therapies: