Regenerative medicine strategies range from cell therapies to artificial devices, but hybrids between cells and materials often emerge as the best option for many tissues and organs. We operate at the intersection of biology, medicine and engineering to tackle what I consider the greatest challenge in the field: controlling cell fate. Indeed, no matter which tissue or organ one wants to heal or which approach scientists take, we ultimately need to influence cells. Our main research themes are:
· Stem cell differentiation. Small soluble molecules, biomaterials, and other approaches are used to direct multipotent and pluripotent stem cells into functioning tissue-specific adult cells.
· Self-organization. Borrowing principles from developmental biology, we study how cell–cell contact and self-organization can be manipulated to build functional mini-tissues and organoids.
· Vascularization. Creating an in vitro vasculature has stumped scientists for years. We are developing alternatives to protect cells from the dearth of nutrients and the (oxidative) stress they incur upon transplantation until the more reliable in vivovascularization occurs.
· Methodology. We use advanced light and electron microscopy to gain high quality single cell information, and we develop methods to work in 3D cell cultures, which are better mimics of the in vivo situation.
My doctoral work aimed to characterise cell-substrate interactions in order to inform the design of tissue engineered scaffolds. I took two approaches to this aim. In the first, embryonic stem cell response to substrates with nano- and micrometer topography and varying chemical composition was studied. This project was based on the knowledge that stem cell self-renewal and lineage commitment can be influenced by the bulk properties of their substrate. The second approach was based on the observation that many groups use integrin ligands to control cell adhesion and subsequent behaviour, but in the case of chondrogenic differentiation of mesenchymal stem cells, little was known about integrin expression during differentiation. This project went on to establish the temporal integrin expression and a role for one specific integrin in chondrogenic differentiation.
Prior to my PhD, I had two major research experiences. At University, I worked to develop, build, and test a childbirth simulator. I also built a simulator of the brachial plexus to measure strains during childbirth that can lead to neonatal injury. This was primarily an electrical and mechanical engineering project. After University, I joined the International Regulome Consortium in the pilot phase of the project. As part of a team, we generated mouse embryonic stem cell lines with tagged transcription factors.