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Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, Ph.D.

AIMBE College of Fellows Class of 2000

Tissue Engineer Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic Earns Columbia’s Highest Academic Honor

Via Columbia | April 13, 2017

Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, a pioneer in the engineering of functional human tissue for use in regenerative medicine, has been appointed to the rank of University Professor, Columbia University’s highest academic honor. Her research has led to the development of novel biomaterials and scaffold architectures for growing bone grafts for facial reconstruction, the creation of electromechanically functional cardiac tissue, the recovery of donor lungs for transplant, the design and use of “organs on a chip” for precision medicine, and other innovations. She is the first professor from Columbia Engineering to receive this honor.

In announcing Vunjak-Novakovic’s appointment on April 13, University President Lee Bollinger highlighted the social impact of her research, her extensive partnerships in academia and industry, her outreach and mentoring of students and young faculty, and her entrepreneurial success as founder of three public-spirited biotechnology companies.

“The discoveries emerging from her laboratory have led to new approaches for treating injuries and complex diseases and also have supported the development and evaluation of therapeutic drugs,” Bollinger wrote. “Professor Vunjak-Novakovic has displayed a special talent for crossing disciplinary boundaries in service of scientific discovery, an inclination that will serve her well as University Professor.”

Vunjak-Novakovic, currently the Mikati Foundation Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Professor of Medical Sciences, and director of Columbia’s Laboratory for Stem Cells and Tissue Engineering, spread that praise to her colleagues and students.

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Q&A: Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic

Via Columbia | July 27, 2015

Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic’s research is making it possible to engineer human bone and build parts of the heart and lung. An innovative researcher, Vunjak-Novakovic also has launched two start-ups in the course of two years: EpiBone, a bone reconstruction company that allows patients to “grow their own bone,” and TARA Biosystems, which is developing a platform to provide physiologically relevant human heart tissue models for drug testing.

For more than 20 years, Vunjak-Novakovic has made tremendous headway in the emerging field of tissue engineering and regenerative medicine, earning numerous honors along the way. She is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies and a founding fellow of the Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine Society; most recently, she was elected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the National Academy of Inventors.

Over winter break, fresh from a trip to Miami to visit her son, Vunjak-Novakovic gave Columbia Engineering magazine access to her lab and discussed the start of her tissue engineering career, her love of music, and works of art that she returns to time and again.

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Professors Vunjak-Novakovic Elected to the National Academy of Inventors

Via Columbia | December 17, 2014

Of the honor, Vunjak-Novakovic says, ”This really means a lot to me. All our work in the lab is done with eventual applications in mind, and we are actively commercializing some of our technologies. I am happy about being recognized as an inventor, and to be in such good company.”
 
Vunjak-Novakovic directs the Laboratory for Stem Cells and Tissue Engineering, which is focused on engineering human tissues for regenerative medicine, stem cell research, and modeling of disease. Extensively published and highly cited, she has over 70 licensed, issued, and pending patents, has founded two biotech companies, and is a frequent advisor to government and industry. Among her many recognitions, Vunjak-Novakovic is a fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, a member of the New York Academy of Science, Academia Europaea, Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, and the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame. In 2012, she was elected to the National Academy of Engineering, becoming the first female professor at Columbia University to ever receive this distinction, and, in 2014, elected to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies.

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Prof. Vunjak-Novakovic Named AAAS Fellow

Via Columbia | December 9, 2014

Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, The Mikati Foundation Professor of Biomedical Engineering and a professor of medical sciences (in Medicine) at Columbia University, has been named a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) “for distinguishing contributions to the field of tissue engineering, particularly by developing functional human tissues for regenerative medicine, stem cell research, and modeling of disease.” She joins three P&S faculty members who are among 401 new fellows honored for their contributions to innovation, education, and scientific leadership. She and her co-fellows will be honored in February at the AAAS Fellows Forum during the 2015 AAAS annual meeting in San Jose, CA.

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With Wires and Electrodes, Tara Bio Builds a Heart on a Chip

Via Xconomy | November 12, 2014

Tara is based on the work of two researchers: Columbia professor Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic and University of Toronto professor Milica Radisic. They met several years ago at Bob Langer’s lab at MIT and have since worked together to turn stem cells into mature heart tissue that can be tested as if it were an adult heart.

At the core of Tara’s technology are what the founders call “biowire.” Two parallel polymer wires are attached to the wells of a 96-well microplate (pictured above), a common piece of research equipment; the wells function as small test tubes.

The idea is that a researcher would put stem cells into the wells, and then mature them with the help of electrical stimulation. The stem cells grab on to the polymer wires and grow across them as they mature, eventually forming what amounts to tiny micro-hearts, with all of the different cell types that constitute adult heart tissue. Those tiny hearts beat, and pull on the wires when they do. The wires allow for tension, which is important, because by measuring how those wires move, a researcher could determine how the heart contracts, and what, specifically, is causing it to contract in the way it does.

The idea is that these measurements, on mature heart tissue, would give pharmaceutical companies a more accurate read on how drugs affect a human heart before they’re tested in people and potentially cause cardiotoxicity, or damage to the heart—a death knell for many drugs, not to mention hazardous for patients.

“People want all the features of the heart in one place, so you can see the interactions and how one thing influences the other,” says Ushio. “And then you can test new medicines to see how that changes.”

Tara envisions researchers using any stem cell type for this process, either grown in their own labs or purchased from a company such as Madison, WI-based Cellular Dynamics (NASDAQ: ICEL).

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With Wires and Electrodes, Tara Bio Builds a Heart on a Chip

Via Xconomy | November 12, 2014

It’s been pretty clear for some time that there’s a big need to improve the efficiency of drug R&D. By industry’s count, drugs cost over $1 billion to develop, and most of them fail. A big reason why is the preclinical studies in petri dishes and animals don’t accurately predict how a drug will behave in humans.

That problem has prompted a slew of companies to innovate new ways to test drugs in a more human-representative fashion, and perhaps even change how preclinical testing is done. The latest to come along is Tara Biosystems, a New York-based Columbia University spinout whose founders say they’ve found a novel, stem-cell based approach that can simulate how a human heart would react to a drug.

Tara recently started up with the help of seed funding from New York-based Harris & Harris Group (NASDAQ: TINY), a publicly-traded venture firm that invests in early-stage companies. Misti Ushio, a managing director and executive VP of Harris & Harris, is leading the company, which is being incubated within the firm.

Regulatory filings show that Harris & Harris has invested around $300,000 in Tara. Ushio says the seed funding gives the company about a year’s worth of runway to prove itself—to validate its technology, convince pharmaceutical companies of its worth, and essentially earn an additional investment, like a full-fledged Series A round.

Tara is based on the work of two researchers: Columbia professor Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic and University of Toronto professor Milica Radisic. They met several years ago at Bob Langer’s lab at MIT and have since worked together to turn stem cells into mature heart tissue that can be tested as if it were an adult heart.

At the core of Tara’s technology are what the founders call “biowire.” Two parallel polymer wires are attached to the wells of a 96-well microplate (pictured above), a common piece of research equipment; the wells function as small test tubes.

The idea is that a researcher would put stem cells into the wells, and then mature them with the help of electrical stimulation. The stem cells grab on to the polymer wires and grow across them as they mature, eventually forming what amounts to tiny micro-hearts, with all of the different cell types that constitute adult heart tissue. Those tiny hearts beat, and pull on the wires when they do. The wires allow for tension, which is important, because by measuring how those wires move, a researcher could determine how the heart contracts, and what, specifically, is causing it to contract in the way it does.

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Professor Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic Elected to the Institute of Medicine

Via Columbia Engineering | October 22, 2014

Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, The Mikati Foundation Professor of Biomedical Engineering and a Professor of Medical Sciences (in Medicine) at Columbia University, has been elected to the elite Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the National Academies. She joins two Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) faculty members and an adjunct faculty member elected to the IOM’s Class of 2014, one of the highest honors in the fields of medicine and health.

“I was thrilled to hear the news, this is such a great honor,” says Vunjak-Novakovic, who is also the director of the Laboratory for Stem Cells and Tissue Engineering, co-director of the Craniofacial Regeneration Center, and scientific director of Columbia Stem Cell Core. “My lab is diligently working on developing new technologies for regenerating bone, heart, and lung, and for drug testing in human tissue platforms. We are just entering the era of personalized medicine, and this is a most exciting time to be a biomedical engineer. With all the collaborative efforts between the Engineering School and CUMC, we have a great opportunity to advance personalized medicine in a rather unique way.”

Vunjak-Novakovic was elected into the National Academy of Engineering in 2012, becoming the first woman at Columbia to ever earn that prestigious distinction. With her election to the IOM, she becomes the second Columbia Engineering faculty to become a member of these two preeminent medical and scientific organizations in the world, joining her colleague Van C. Mow, Stanley Dicker Professor of Biomedical Engineering and professor of orthopedic engineering.

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Prof. Vunjak-Novakovic Wins $6.3M NIH Grant to Design Tissue Chip to Evaluate Drugs

Via Columbia | October 1, 2014

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has just announced major funding for the next three-year phase of its Tissue Chip for Drug Screening program, aimed at improving ways of predicting drug safety and effectiveness, and a team led by Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, Mikati Foundation Professor of Biomedical Engineering and professor of medical sciences, has been awarded an additional $6.3 million of funding over three years, with $3.5M going to Columbia Engineering. The project consortium includes three of the leading laboratories in the country: Sangeeta Bhatia (MIT), Christopher Chen (Boston University in collaboration with Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering), and Karen Hirschi (Yale University).

Today, the estimated cost of bringing a new drug to clinics exceeds $1 billion. Still, some 80 percent of candidate drugs fail in human clinical trials because they are found to be unsafe or ineffective, according to the NIH, despite promising preclinical studies in animal and cell models. The majority of drug recalls in the past 40 years have been due to cardiotoxicity (19% of withdrawals), hepatotoxicity (26% of withdrawals), or unpredicted adverse effects of drug interactions. Drug toxicities that pass through preclinical and clinical studies are particularly highly costly. This situation is largely due to poor predictions of drug responses in the human body by both cell culture and experimental animals, and has motivated the development of tissue chips for drug screening.

Vunjak-Novakovic and her team are developing an integrated heart-liver-vascular model system (nicknamed HeLiVa chip) that mimics the function of the human body and can be used to evaluate therapeutic drugs. The system can also be personalized to model specific genetic and disease states to test drugs for their effectiveness and toxicity in the heart or liver.

“This is a very important program and an exciting collaboration between biology and engineering,” says Vunjak-Novakovic.

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Bones, Made to Order

Via Nautilus | August 1, 2013

Bones can be broken, made from synthetic materials, or carved from other bones in our body. But grow new bones? That just doesn’t happen. Until now. Scientists at Columbia University have shown they can make bones to order.

“Tissue engineers,” those working to grow new organs, including the heart, from stem cells, have been operating for decades. But creating new bones, given their varied density and shapes, is “more complex,” says Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic at Columbia University’s Department of Biomedical Engineering. In their first experiments, the “bone engineers” started small, with facial bones. Recently, Vunjak-Novakovic and Sidney Eisig, a professor of craniofacial surgery at the Columbia University Medical Center, grew parts of the jawbone located by the ear—the vertical ramus and the condyle—and successfully implanted them in a pig.

Creating new bones would allow doctors to avoid the injurious process of carving them out of other bones in a patient. It would bypass the potential rejection of synthetic bones in some patients. To create new organic bones, the Columbia team seeded stem cells in a scaffolding—a piece of an animal bone stripped of all cellular material and carved in the required shape—and pumped nutrients through the growing bone to deliver them to the cells on the inside. As the new bone gets formed by special cells called osteoblasts, the old scaffolding is dissolved by their counterparts, osteoclasts. The result is a fully viable, live bone. With scaling, the same technology can be used to grow any other bones, including vertebrae. “If it works in the face, it can work in the other parts of the body,” Eisig says.

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Exploring the Ultimate Frontier: Science in Space

Via Columbia Engineering | January 9, 2013

Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, Mikati Foundation Professor of Biomedical Engineering and a professor of medical sciences, is one of the first seven members to be selected to the board of directors of the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS). She joins an accomplished group of academic and scientific leaders who will help direct CASIS, the nonprofit organization that promotes and manages research on board the International Space Station (ISS) U.S. National Laboratory.

“I am really thrilled and honored to serve as one of the science directors on the CASIS board,” says Vunjak-Novakovic, who is also the director of Columbia Engineering’s Laboratory for Stem Cells and Tissue Engineering. “Our work will be as unique as the International Space Station itself, a ‘laboratory’ that lacks gravity and thus allows us to study the effect of this omnipresent force on all kinds of biological and physical processes. We will be working hand-in-hand with NASA to develop a program for the ISS that will push the limits of science and lead to the development of exciting commercial technologies.”

Vunjak-Novakovic is especially interested in space experiments with proteins, cells, and tissues that cannot be done on Earth, and “can serve,” she says, “as a basis for developing new and curative treatment modalities.”

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