At Columbia’s “Body Shop,” Faculty Engineer New Treatments
By Joseph Neighbor
When two lung transplant surgeons were looking for an innovative solution to a long-standing problem—not enough lungs available for patients who need them—they approached Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, PhD, the Mikati Foundation Professor of Biomedical Engineering and a professor of medical sciences (in medicine).
It makes sense to enlist her help. Dr. Vunjak-Novakovic has made a career of doing things that used to be impossible, such as using stem cells to grow human tissue within “bioreactors,” machines that mimic conditions within the body. For her innovations she was inducted into the National Academy of Engineering in 2012 and the Institute of Medicine and National Academy of Inventors in 2014.
The Laboratory for Stem Cells and Tissue Engineering, which she directs, is working every day on miraculous stuff, such as growing strips of tissue that can be placed like a Band-Aid on a damaged heart.
Our projects often come from long-standing clinical problems,” says Dr. Vunjak-Novakovic. “A physician or a surgeon comes to us with an issue, and we ask, ‘Why don’t we have better treatment options for it? Is our level of understanding not deep enough? Is there a limitation of technology?'"
Tackling old problems with fresh ideas is common in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, which observes its 15th anniversary this year. Housed in the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science on Columbia’s Morningside Heights campus, the department shares faculty with P&S.
The collaboration weds the basic sciences with engineering principles to better understand the bewilderingly intricate mechanics of the human body. Within the department’s three tracks—cell and tissue engineering, biomechanics, and biosignals and biomedical imaging—researchers leverage that understanding to design new technologies with practical, clinical applications.
“Biomedical engineering comes from need,” says Elisa Konofagou, PhD, professor of biomedical engineering and of radiology. Her research has focused on using ultrasound imaging to create maps of the human heart far richer and more complex than what can be seen with the naked eye. “There’s usually a missing link somewhere between the tools we have and what is needed. So we develop those tools, in collaboration with clinicians. We find windows of opportunity. They’re narrow, but at least they exist.”
When Dr. Vunjak-Novakovic’s lab began working on the lung problem, one thing became clear: “The architecture of a lung is phenomenally complex. You can’t just make one from scratch,” she says. But it might be possible to fix “low-quality” lungs by conditioning them with various nutrients within a bioreactor.
While the process often begins with a clinician’s problem, the clinician’s involvement does not end there; physicians continue to participate throughout the process “by telling us what not to do or what would never work in practice,” says Dr. Vunjak-Novakovic.
The field only really coalesced in the past three decades, when gaps between disciplines began to close. “What’s exciting is the opportunity for clinicians and the basic scientists to join forces, making new synergies that didn’t exist,” says Andrew F. Laine, ScD, chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering. “There’s an understanding that one lab can’t do it all.”
“As a biomedical engineer, I know most of what other biomedical engineers know," adds Dr. Vunjak-Novakovic. "But to work with a cardiologist, or a radiologist, or a surgeon—this is a real challenge. They can expose me to different conceptual approaches and different tools. It’s where I want to be: the boundaries of discovery.”