Surgeon/engineer receives grant for tissue regeneration work

Elliot L. Chaikof is conducting research in tissue engineering that allows him to combine his skills as a vascular surgeon and as a Ph.D.-trained chemical engineer.

Tissue engineering is a relatively new field that integrates engineering, medicine and molecular biology in addressing problems related to tissue healing and organ regeneration. The outcome of this work will improve the ability of doctors to repair, reconstruct or replace diseased or damaged tissues and organs, said Chaikof, who is assistant professor of surgery at the Emory School of Medicine and adjunct professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology's School of Chemical Engineering.

Chaikof hopes to use strategies from drug and material design to develop a hybrid arterial prosthesis, or "organoid," which combines both artificial and natural biological elements. The highly specialized, biomolecular material that is at the heart of his research is an outcome of a process that mimics the way nature designs complex biological structures.

Cells communicate with one another and their environment because nature has evolved specialized receptors and signaling molecules in the cell membrane. Spe-cifically, Chaikof is investigating synthetic cell-like surfaces that are composed of lipids that have been linked chemically to small proteins or peptides. Lipids are the fundamental molecular units that spontaneously assemble to form cell membranes; peptides can activate receptors on neighboring cells. In this way, "smarter" artificial materials may be able to control the specific behavior of surrounding cells, including their adhesion, proliferation and migration.

Chaikof will use the $180,000 he has been awarded by the Whitaker Foundation to continue the development of these novel, biologically active substrates, which promote the growth of vascular cell walls. These cells are the primary building blocks of new circulatory structures, ranging from small microcapillaries to major arteries.

"Engineering such structures would prove useful in the fields of cardiology, plastic surgery and vascular surgery," Chaikof said. "It might also benefit organ and cell transplantation."

The Whitaker Foundation is a private, non-profit foundation created in 1975 in the belief that engineering can improve medical care.

-- Lorri Preston