Jennifer Elisseeff, the director of the new Translational Tissue Engineering Center, is a biomedical engineer who holds an endowed chair in the Department of Ophthalmology, where she is helping to develop an artificial cornea. Tissue engineering, she says, is taking place at the juncture of several scientific disciplines.
What’s been the history of tissue engineering—how far have labs and companies gotten in producing therapeutic applications?
ELISSEEFF: In the early 1990s, there was a lot of growth. There was talk of making an ear, a heart in a dish. But it fizzled. A lot of companies went under.
ELISSEEFF: A biomedical engineer at Brown University named Michael Lysaght (who recently died) had a theory that the private sector boardrooms were making decisions about science that they didn’t quite understand. And the challenges of manufacturing were not appreciated. A lot of medical manufacturing to that point involved making devices. But in tissue engineering you need a scaffold and you need to work with cells, to know what’s a good cell and what’s a bad cell [for your product.]
What will the Johns Hopkins center do differently?
ELISSEEFF: Our outstanding feature is the strong clinical environment. Our approach is heavily influenced by working with clinicians. It gives you a better perspective on what’s needed.
Elsewhere, there is a lot of excitement, too, led by efforts sponsored by the military and NIH. For instance, the military is developing a method to “print” skin using a device like a desktop printer for helping soldiers burned in combat.
What training helped prepare you for the task of engineering an artificial cornea and other tissues?
ELISSEEFF: As an undergrad at Carnegie Mellon, I was interested in science but also in medicine. I started doing materials research. I worked with an organic chemistry professor doing basic polymer chemistry research.
In grad school I continued in materials research, helping to develop a hydrogel, a jelly-like polymer that can be used to encapsulate and grow cells in 3-D.
Then as a postdoc at NIH, I learned a lot of basic fundamental biology. I did research in a lab that was studying cartilage development.
In tissue engineering, I use all of the skills and knowledge I’ve acquired in each of these different disciplines.
--Interviewed by Melissa Hendricks