latest advancement sin science and technology has made it possible to replace eroded knee caps with fresh ones|
|Kriti S. Anseth, a professor of chemical and biological engineering at the University of Colorado, likes to break barriers. She does this almost obliviously, and in doing so, she is helping to change the culture of science.
At 37, Dr Anseth is a professor in a field once the sole province of bookish men. She is also the first engineer, male or female, to become a Howard Hughes medical investigator, a prize usually reserved for Nobel-worthy researchers in the basic sciences. Additionally, in 2004, she won the $500,000 Alan T. Waterman Award, presented by the National Science Foundation to an outstanding young researcher.
These honours came because of Dr Anseth's work in tissue engineering, a booming new specialty. So far, she has developed innovative methods for growing bones, skin and cartilage.
"I think tissue engineering is something that appeals because many of us can relate to the promise of the field," said Dr Anseth on a recent visit to New York City.
"Our bodies are incredibly complex, and we still don't understand all that happens when a disease or a complex process takes hold and we get injuries," she continued. "There's a lot of hope in trying to solve these riddles and trying to come up with new healing strategies."
Job description of a tissue engineer.
We are the people interested in building living systems in humans and animals called the tissue. We start with the building blocks of these systems-cells or different proteins or molecules, and then we reassemble them into something that becomes living tissues within a body.
The promises of tissue engineering are many. In trying to regenerate cartilage, we're very far along. In terms of progress, things related to our cartilage, bones, skin, we're likely to see products within 5 to 10 years. The really big impact areas-treatments for Parkinson's disease and diabetes-those will happen later, within my lifetime.
How exactly does an engineer rebuild eroded kneecaps of humans?
Through a process we're calling scaffolding. First, you need live cartilage cells. They can come from other parts of the body where extras exist. Next, you create scaffolding in the knee with synthetic materials like degradable plastics. This gives the cells the structure to grow around.
You then decorate the scaffold material with the live cells. They fill in the empty space in the knee, and as they grow, shaped by the scaffolding, the plastic breaks down. With time, you're just left with a natural construction.
Do you think tissue engineers will be using stem cells, which are highly malleable, in their work?
Tissue engineers need a source of cells, but our bodies are not just a collection of cells. These cells are organized in very complex modes. What tissue engineering tries to do is put the cells into an environment that gets those cells to recreate themselves... stem cells have a lot of promise for that.
But even with stem cells we need to apply tissue-engineering principles to deliver drugs and proteins to the right time.
Within the scientific world, engineers have long been second-class citizens. How have you managed to win respect for what you do?
Engineers definitely pursue research with a practical application in mind. That hasn't always been respected. But this is a time when the boundaries between science and engineering are blurring.
So many problems require biologists, chemists, engineers acting together. I think the most exciting discoveries we're seeing are coming at the interfaces disciplines.
You now see at almost every major research institution all these new types of institutes and buildings designed to put people together. Gone are all these academic silos where they put all the biologists in one building and all the engineers in another.
These new structures make it easier for an engineer to go talk to a biologist or a chemist, rather than to suppress an idea when something comes in from left field.
How do you answer people who say that tissue engineering sounds a bit like the imaginings of Dr. Frankenstein?
It can sound that way. But sometimes, the body doesn't know how to heal by itself... we help it. Nothing synthetic is left in place. It's truly your' own tissues.