A Johns Hopkins engineer is trying to coax human stem cells to turn into networks of new blood vessels that could someday be used to replace damaged tissue in people with heart disease, diabetes and other illnesses.
Sharon Gerecht, an assistant professor of chemical and molecular engineering in the university's Whiting School of Engineering, recently received a $150,000 two-year grant from the March of Dimes Foundation to support her research; earlier, she received a $310,000 four-year award from the American Heart Association to advance this promising line of study.
Gerecht is using the funds to answer important questions about what happens at the molecular level when stem cells differentiate: Which environmental cues cause them to form blood vessels instead of other types of body tissue? Is it a lack of oxygen? Is it the nutrients on which the cells feed? Is it the texture and composition of the material on which the cells are situated? And which type of stem cells is best-suited to the assembly of replacement blood vessels?
Solving these puzzles, Gerecht said, should help her and other researchers to more effectively harness the power of stem cells for human health remedies.
"Stem cell research has generated lots of excitement because it has so much potential to help so many people who are ill or injured," she said. "But we don't have a very good understanding of what's going on when stem cells change into a certain type of tissue, and we can't control the transformation with much precision. We're trying to learn more about what causes these cells to develop and differentiate. With this knowledge in hand, we can make medical applications involving stem cells more successful and more reliable."
To look for these answers, Gerecht, recipient of the 2008 Maryland Outstanding Young Engineer Award, is using engineering techniques to manipulate the environment in which stem cells are placed. These lab experiments
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Johns Hopkins University