Bioengineering the Future
By Ben Panko
For Jennifer Hartt Elisseeff, blending fields has long been a theme in her career in research, dating back to her time as a student at the Mellon College of Science’s Department of Chemistry.
"I think it's a unique environment," said Elisseeff of her undergraduate experience at MCS. "It ended up being a great fit and allowed me to do a couple different things, and bridge a couple different fields."
As an undergraduate, Elisseeff worked in the lab of Krzysztof Matyjaszewski, J.C. Warner University Professor of Natural Sciences and director of the Center for Macromolecular Engineering, on polymer research.
"I was actually interested in both biology and physics, and chemistry was almost a little bit of a middle of the road," Elisseeff said of how she ended up in the Department of Chemistry.
Building on the work she started at Carnegie Mellon University, Elisseeff went on to earn a Ph.D. in medical engineering from the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology, where her dissertation focused on using polymer-based hydrogels for regenerating cartilage in the body.
Hydrogels are gelatinous materials built out of crosslinked polymer chains that can absorb large amounts of water. That high water content means these gels closely resemble the waterlogged tissues of the human body, leading these substances to be widely studied for biomedical engineering.
Following a fellowship at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, Elisseeff joined the faculty of Johns Hopkins University in 2001 and set out to continue digging into how to use hydrogels for tissue regeneration. Over the next 15 years, Elisseeff developed hydrogels that can serve as biosafe scaffolds for stem cells to attach to as they regenerate tissue and bone. Her work quickly caught widespread attention, with MIT Technology Review naming it one of the "10 emerging technologies that will change the world" in 2003. Other honors have included the Young Alumni Award from Carnegie Mellon, being named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, serving on the board of the Association of Women in Science and, last year, induction into the National Academy of Engineering.
In 2013, mirroring her dissertation, Elisseeff published research in the journal Science Translational Medicine in which 15 people had hydrogels implanted in their injured knees, which helped their cartilage heal. This is just one example of the many clinical trials that Elisseeff led through several start-up companies she founded.
"The results from [these trials] have led to an understanding that the immune system is really important in how these biomaterials react in the body," said Elisseeff, who now is the Morton Goldberg Professor and director of the Translational Tissue Engineering Center at Johns Hopkins Department of Biomedical Engineering and the Wilmer Eye Institute, with appointments in chemical and biological engineering, materials science and orthopedic surgery.
Over, the last few years Elisseeff's focus has pivoted from developing biomaterials to figuring out how the human body and its immune system treats these materials and how that reaction affects the healing process these materials are designed to aid.
Elisseeff credits her time at Carnegie Mellon in the Mellon College of Science as giving her a strong foundation for a research career that's involved trial and error and transitions.
"It helped establish a passion for learning," Elisseeff said.