Spotlight on Professor Nukavarapu’s research as described by one of his PhD students

By Margot Wentzel

Aleksandra Golebiowska is a 3rd year Ph.D. student in Biomedical Engineering at the University of Connecticut working with Dr. Syam Nukavarapu in the Tissue Engineering Science and Technology Lab (TEST Lab). Her primary interest is tissue engineering, an exceedingly relevant field, often cited as the future of medicine. The field involves the development of synthetic tissues/body parts for repair/regeneration. Aleksandra’s interest in drug delivery as an undergrad, as well as her work with hydrogels prepared her well for this project. She credits her sister for sparking her interest in science and followed her footsteps by studying engineering as well as pursuing a post doctorate. Caroline Thompson, a Biomedical Engineering undergraduate whose focus is on Biomaterials and Tissue Engineering is assisting Dr. Nukavarapu and Aleksandra on this project. 

Dr. Nukavarapu’s work is focused on engineered grafts for tissue repair/regeneration. This project in particular utilizes the BioX printer by Cell Ink that integrates biomaterials and cells to develop a variety of bioprinted grafts with controlled micro-environment to influence cell behaviour. This specific project is also interested in developing specialized bio-inks from decellularized tissues. TEST Lab is printing with different decellularized materials as bio-inks that contain native growth-factors to induce the desired tissue formation. The team is currently using BioX to develop hybrid scaffold structures with cells for bone, cartilage and bone-cartilage interface engineering.

Aleksandra’s project is to develop spatially controlled grafts and study the role of local-microstructure in complex tissue, such as bone-cartilage interface regeneration. For this project, she develops G-code to fabricate variety of scaffold configurations by altering material infill density along the scaffold length. Using BioX printer, as G-code an input, the team has so far developed a series of scaffold systems with varying pore volume and structure. The lab is also developing gel-based bioprinting techniques using decellularized bio-inks. Even though the printing is straightforward, Aleksandra says the optimization is complex as each biomaterial comes with its own variables. After clocking 100s of hours and much of optimization, the team is now able to print 3d-matrices with desired patterns. Aleksandra is optimistic about successfully printing these structures along with cells to develop bioprinted osteochondral grafts.

In the future this project could relate to a number of applications specifically osteochondral defect management, which involves damage to both the articular cartilage and the underlying subchondral bone. This project would ensure that the bone, cartilage and bone-cartilage interface requirements are taken into account to develop multiphasic structures to be evaluated for osteochondral defect repair. Causes of these defects include disease, trauma or aging-related degeneration, all of which can potentially lead to osteoarthritis, a debilitating joint disease significantly affecting patient’s quality of life. Many of these treatments are often palliative or results in the formation of fibrocartilage, a scar-like tissue. By using this technique that Dr. Nukavarapu is engineering, the development of scaffolds that are structurally similar to the native tissue would allow for regeneration of the articular cartilage and subchondral bone as well as the establishment of the smooth interface formation. Furthermore, it would assist in preventing degeneration/tissue loss and result in fewer total joint replacements, typically end-stage options for these defects. This is a highly impactful research project to the healthcare field.

Aleksandra is on the GAANN fellowship and is excited to continue this work with Dr. Nukavarapu on this project. Next year Caroline will be heading to New York to start a PhD. Program at Cornell University.