Student research fuels advances in tissue engineering

Author: Linda Thomas Terhune
Julie Kadrmas grew up on the prairie frontier, in a rural area in southwest North Dakota. Now, as a rising star in the world of tissue engineering, she is on the frontier of modern medicine.

Her cutting-edge research abilities in tissue engineering were recently recognized with a prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

Kadrmas, who is completing the second year of the chemical engineering doctoral program, is working on the tissue engineering of cartilage with Julie Liu, assistant professor of chemical engineering (and biomedical engineering by courtesy). Her vision is to make a protein specifically designed so that when it hits body temperature it gels. Subsequent exposure to UV light would increase the mechanical properties of the gel even further. A solution of this protein, mixed with the patient’s own adult stem cells, could be injected and would then cue cells to grow real cartilage. In the case of knee surgeries, for example, injecting cartilage would be a vast improvement over cutting a patient’s knee open. “That’s the vision,” she says, then adds with a laugh, “but I’m a long way away from it.”

Kadrmas’ interest in tissue engineering comes from a love of biology and an aptitude for math. Chemical engineering, she says, brings the two subjects together. Tissue engineering comes even closer. The subject fascinates Kadrmas with its opportunities for multidisciplinary collaboration and its potential for improving lives and positive impact. “The opportunity to explore what tissue engineering can do is really cool. A lot is still unknown in tissue regeneration ... the frontiers are still open,” she says.

“It’s amazing stuff, trying to come up with practical solutions to medical problems. The FDA approval process can take a long time, though, especially for artificial proteins. Some problems might exist with getting treatments to market, but I see increasing collaboration between engineers and doctors as helping to get rid of those problems,” she says