Jennifer Elisseeff: Bringing cartilage to light

Credit: BILL CRAMER / WONDERFUL MACHINE INC." /> Credit: BILL CRAMER / WONDERFUL MACHINE INC. In Jennifer Elisseeff's small tissue-culture room at Johns Hopkins University, she points to an eraser-sized pellet of two-layered hydrogel floating in culture medium. She explains how the cells, encapsulated within juxtaposed layers of gel, exchange signals to help them grow. Knowing what those signals are could help her design a hydrogel that would regenerate diseased tissue. As a teen

Nov 1, 2007
Edyta Zielinska
<figcaption> Credit: BILL CRAMER / WONDERFUL MACHINE INC.</figcaption>
Credit: BILL CRAMER / WONDERFUL MACHINE INC.

In Jennifer Elisseeff's small tissue-culture room at Johns Hopkins University, she points to an eraser-sized pellet of two-layered hydrogel floating in culture medium. She explains how the cells, encapsulated within juxtaposed layers of gel, exchange signals to help them grow. Knowing what those signals are could help her design a hydrogel that would regenerate diseased tissue.

As a teenager working on a science fair project in her father's engineering lab at Florida Atlantic University, Elisseeff began to appreciate the cross-talk between biology and materials while studying the effects of bacteria on metal corrosion. After her first year of medical school in the Harvard/MIT Health Science and Technology program, Elisseeff found a way to apply her interest when she recognized a huge need in the field of orthopedic surgery. Bone and cartilage lack good natural repair mechanisms, and the surgical treatment for the damaged tissue is currently extremely invasive. Elisseeff's "big picture perspective" was what most impressed Martha Gray, the director of the program. "She'll take a problem that's been around for 500 years and break it down to actionable components."

In 1995, Elisseeff chose Robert Langer as her PhD advisor. He was designing implantable polymers as vehicles for drug delivery. Langer remembers the day that Elisseeff came to him with a seemingly simple proposition: "If we shine a light and it goes through the skin, couldn't you almost mold [the polymer]?" The idea wasn't new, as dentists use it to fix white composite fillings, but it had never been done within the body, says Langer. If it worked, it would enable surgeons to operate with only an optic cable and a syringe.

Elisseeff set out to make "liquid cartilage," testing a water-based gel that the body could tolerate, and testing the amount of light needed to stiffen the gel.1 She then showed that chondrocytes could use the hydrogel polymer as a scaffold to regrow cartilage.2

Elisseeff didn't stop at proving the concept in the lab. After a one-year postdoc at the National Institute of General Medicine, she took a job at the Biomedical Engineering Institute at Johns Hopkins in 2001. In 2004, to bring her biomaterials to patients, she co-founded a company called Cartilix with Norman Marcus, an orthopedic surgeon.

With rapid-fire speech Elisseeff rattles off her latest projects, which include coaxing embryonic stem cells to differentiate,3 trying to create a membrane that could repair cells in the cornea, and rebuilding breast tissue. Getting products into clinical trials is a roller-coaster process, says Elisseeff, but "I like what I'm doing now, because you have the feeling that you can make clinical practice better."

She's "a young superstar," says Langer. "I think that the thing she does will have an impact on human health. We're going to hear about Jennifer."