At 30, Karen Christman, an assistant bioengineering professor at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering, plans to help fuel the growing field of tissue engineering. With a new $1.5 million New Innovator Award grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Christman will be able to do just that.
The awards, announced Sept. 22, were created in 2007 to support a small number of new investigators who have exceptional creativity and propose bold and highly innovative new research approaches that have the potential to produce a major breakthrough on broad, important problems in biomedical and behavioral research.
Christman will use the five-year grant to further her research in developing a novel and innovative multi-layer patterning technique that will provide step-by-step cues for cell and tissue development.
"One of my major goals is to develop differentiated cell sources," said Christman, who joined the Jacobs School faculty in 2007 after earning a Ph.D in bioengineering from UC San Francisco and UC Berkeley. "For example, one of the major problems with stem cells – either embryonic or adult – is that we can't control their fate as well as we would like to. So, if you're going to inject cells into the heart, for example, you want the cells to mainly be cardiac muscle cells. What most people have done is try to promote the cell differentiation through adding soluble factors to cell culture. Nothing has been developed that mimics how the extracellular matrix morphs over time. And, this matrix is known to play a large role in cell survival and fate."
"If you can better mimic what the cell sees inside of the body then we should be able to better control cell fate," she added. "It's basically being able to generate cell sources and trying to control cell behavior. This could be used for all sorts of regenerative medicine approaches."
Many medical researchers believe that regenerative medicine – which accelerates the healing process to fully restore the health of damaged tissues and organs – will help change the face of human disease. As an example of regenerative medicine, researchers expect to one day be able to use technologies derived from adult and embryonic stem cells to treat a number of diseases, including cancer, Type 1 diabetes, spinal cord injury and muscle damage.
"We're not going to have regenerative medicine treatments overnight," Christman said. "But I think in the coming decade we will be making some big strides."
Christman's expertise is the regeneration of injured and diseased cardiovascular tissue using polymer chemistry and nanotechnology to develop new biomaterials for tissue implantation and cell delivery. She is one of two UC San Diego faculty who received an NIH New Innovator Award.
Dr. Seth J. Field, an assistant professor of medicine at UC San Diego's School of Medicine, was also named a New Innovator Award winner. Field will use his grant to study a group of seven lipid signaling molecules called phosphoinositides, which are known to play critical roles in regulating cell growth and death, metabolism, and communication processes within cells. Field plans to develop a multi-pronged, systematic approach to understanding the function of lipid molecules that transmit signals within cells. Despite the importance of this molecule in diseases ranging from cardiovascular and neurologic disease to diabetes and cancer, little is known about its function.
The NIH doled out New Innovator Awards to a total of 31 young scientists across the United States.
"These highly creative researchers are tackling important scientific challenges with bold ideas and inventive technologies that promise to break through the barriers and radically shift our understanding," NIH director Elias A. Zerhouni said.
The New Innovator Awards are part of the NIH's Roadmap for Medical Research, a series of initiatives designed to address fundamental knowledge gaps, develop transformative tools and technologies, and to foster innovative approaches to complex problems. The awards are also intended to accelerate the translation of risky science and research to improvements in human health.
For young scientists like Christman, support from federal funding agencies such as the NIH is critical to boosting their careers and new fields such as bioengineering.
"In bioengineering innovation is brought about by bringing different fields together – medicine, chemistry, engineering and biology," she said. "Bioengineers often create new technologies, so it's important to fund this field, which sometimes has risky science but can have big rewards for human health."