Monday, 14 September 2015

International advances in tissue engineered cartilage: a BBSRC-funded research visit to Columbia University, New York City, USA

Writen by Dr James Henstock

Dr James Hestock
My BBSRC-funded postdoctoral research project in ISTM has allowed me huge scope to pursue my interest in the role of mechanical stimuli in tissue regeneration and to investigate how physical activity is instrumental in maintaining bone and joint health.

A major focus of my research is to grow replacement bone and cartilage in the lab which can be transplanted back into patients as functional tissue – a process that may be set to revolutionise the treatment of osteoarthritis over the next decade. In this research, healthy cells are taken from a patient as a biopsy and cultured in a biomaterial hydrogel in the lab before being returned as viable ‘tissue engineered’ cartilage to the surgeon for repairing the degenerated joint.

This process is a complex biological and engineering challenge, and has been shown to be strongly influenced by the effects of mechanical stimulation on the cultured cells. If the tissue grown in the lab senses exercise the cells react by forming an enhanced biological structure (a complex mix of proteins and polysaccharides) that gives cartilage its strength and natural resilience. A leading expert in this field is Professor Clark T. Hung at Columbia University in New York, and I was eager to talk to Clark and learn some of his techniques for engineering lab-grown cartilage. 

Clark T. Hung’s Cellular Engineering Laboratory group at Columbia University, New York City 

BBSRC-funded researchers are eligible to apply for small travel awards that allow for short periods of research or study overseas (the International Scientific Interchange Scheme), and so I successfully applied for funding to visit Columbia University in Manhattan. During the three months I studied in Clark’s lab I learned a number of new techniques for generating and analysing lab-grown cartilage - skills which I have transferred back to the UK and used to conduct novel research combining the expertise and technology from both institutions.

My experience of working at Columbia University was incredible, and in addition to study and research I was able to explore New York and experience living in this amazing city. Following my initial visit, I fully intend to apply for a larger independent research grant to pursue a transatlantic programme of joint research.

Alma Mater and the Butler Library, Columbia University campus

International collaboration is now a fundamental principle in research, with academics participating in a global arena for sharing experience and generating novel ideas. I am extremely grateful to the BBSRC for funding this visit, and for their continuing support of postdoctoral researchers in developing transferrable skills and sustained career development. BBSRC also have a Bioscience Skills and Careers Strategy Panel which has a LinkedIn group that I’d recommend all BBSRC-funded postdocs to actively participate in. As postdoctoral progression becomes ever more competitive, knowing about travel, funding and training opportunities is hugely important in maximising career potential.

I would also like to thank Professor Alicia El Haj, my supervisor at Keele for supporting me in this research visit, and Clark’s research team at Columbia for including me in their lab group. Please feel free to contact me by email, and also visit the lab group webpages for more interesting articles about our research.

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