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Rebuilding The Human Body

Rebuilding The Human BodyInTufts’ Tissue Engineering Resource Center, director andbiomedical engineering chair David Kaplan is figuring out howthe human body is put together, one cell at a time.Medford/Somerville,Mass.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [11.19.04] In his Tufts laboratory,DavidKaplan sorts tirelessly through the glue and the buildingblocks that make the human body stick together – and heis having a blast doing it.

"Anyof us can clone or express a gene – that's not hard anymore,”Kaplan told The Boston Globe. “What's interestingis how you get this incredibly complicated architecture that letsus live and breathe and run around and have fun."

Kaplan, whois the director of the the University’s new Tissue EngineeringResource Center as well as the chairman of the Department of BiomedicalEngineering, concentrates on finding practical uses for his researchrather than maintaining a purely academic perspective.

"Thereare so many cool things," he said to the Globe,which profiled his work on Monday.

Kaplan toldthe newspaper that he became interested in this sort of researchwhen he was doing graduate work at Syracuse University on lignin,the protein that strengthens wood.

"I wasfascinated by the combination of enzymes that produces this complexglue that makes trees stand up," he explained to the Globe.

Subsequently,he became interested in the surprisingly hardy strength of spidersilk, which he later determined was due to the way spiders stretchand dry the polymers they produce.

Besides silk-spinningand tree-growing, Kaplan has also studied what makes barnaclescling to rocks, the organization of bone and tendon cells andthe aging of adult stem cells in an attempt to better understandhow cellular framework is established.

Despite thelack of comprehensive understanding of these processes, the prospectsfor discovery excite Kaplan.

"If you'renot afraid of learning, it's wonderful," he said to the Globe.

Kaplan explainedto the Globe how silk, for instance, can be used as asupport structure upon which adult stem cells can convert intobone, tendon, muscle or cartilage.

Cellular developmentis then cultivated with rich helpings of nutrients and oxygenand careful manipulation of the cells’ shape and position.

Some of thecenter’s discoveries may eventually lead to the developmentof a replacement for the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) as wellas treatments for people suffering from arthritis, cancer andosteoporosis.

Kaplan isa big believer in cross-disciplinary learning, citing the energyand knowledge he draws from colleagues across the fields of computerscience, physics and engineering.

"Futureadvances are going to have to be at the interface of disciplines,"he told the Globe.

With a $4million grant from the National Institutes of Health, Kaplan foundedthe center in September in conjunction with MIT’s GordanaVunjak-Novakovic, who also has an adjunct teaching position atTufts’ School of Engineering.

Kaplan attributesmuch of his success to the work of his colleagues.

"I'msurrounded by great people," he explained to the Globe."It makes my life tolerable."

Alongsidethe center’s research, the center works on tissue engineeringwith local biotechnology companies.

One such company,Tissue Regeneration Inc. of Medford, is run by a former studentof Kaplan’s, Tufts assistant research professor in biomedicalengineering Greg Altman, who is eyeing human trials of replacementknee ligaments within two years.

With so manymysteries of the human body yet to be unraveled, Kaplan is undaunted– even encouraged.

"We knownothing," he remarked to the Globe. "It's fantastic."

 

 

 

 

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