Honoring a Pioneer in Tissue Engineering: Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic Named European Inventor Award 2021 Finalist

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European Patent Office announces that Columbia University Professor Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic is nominated for her lifelong work in biomedical engineering

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Her scientific innovation, entrepreneurial mindset and patented inventions offer the prospect of safer rehabilitative medicine in musculoskeletal, heart and lung conditions, welcoming a new era in regenerative medicine.

The European Patent Office (EPO) announces that Serbian-American scientist Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic has been nominated as a finalist of the European Inventor Award 2021 for her innovative contribution to biomedical engineering. She has dedicated her decades-long career to developing an ex vivo tissue engineering technique which offers a safer, more precise way of cultivating skeletal, heart, lung, and vascular tissue for either transplantation, disease modelling, or drug testing.

Named as one of three finalists in the prestigious “Lifetime achievement” category, Vunjak-Novakovic’s work has solved the intricate problems involved in replacing damaged tissue. Before she developed her technique, tissue replacement either involved a painful graft from a patient’s body or carried the risk of immune rejection in the case of grafts taken from a cadaver. Vunjak-Novakovic’s pioneering technique involves creating living biological grafts by growing a new piece of tissue ex vivo from a patient’s own cells, entirely eliminating these problems.

“Over her lifetime, Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic has made a major contribution to tissue engineering, one of the most promising ways to prolong the human lifespan and improve quality of life,” said EPO president António Campinos, announcing the 2021 EPO Award finalists. “Her scientific innovation, entrepreneurial mindset and patented inventions offer the prospect of safer rehabilitative medicine in musculoskeletal, heart and lung conditions, welcoming a new era in regenerative medicine.”

The winners of the 2021 edition of the EPO's annual innovation prize will be announced at a ceremony starting at 1:00 pm EDT (19:00 CEST) on June 17, which has this year been reimagined as a digital event for a global audience.

Controlled environment
Replacing damaged or worn-out tissue has long been a goal of scientists working in the biomedical field. In the 1980s, when Vunjak-Novakovic began her career, the mainstream approach was to combine cells and biomaterials, and insert them into the body, with the intention of this transplant finding a way to regenerate tissues. The researcher, herself inspired as a child by the scientific excellence of fellow Serbian Nikola Tesla, pioneered an alternative: growing cells in a laboratory by carefully controlling the external environments – the temperature, pH, nutrients, oxygen, growth factors and physical forces – to influence the type of tissue they develop into, and then implanting this tissue into the body. “You cannot fool the cells,” says Vunjak-Novakovic. “You need to provide them with the full spectrum of conditions which they experience in nature.”

The primary focus for Vunjak-Novakovic and EpiBone – one of the companies she co-founded – has been facial surgery. To create engineered facial bones, the missing or damaged area is scanned to define the precise shape of the defect, which help to create a 3D model of the required bone replacement. This is then fed into a microfabrication device to carve a piece of pig or cattle bone matrix into the same shape, creating a scaffold for the new bone tissue to grow in.

The scaffold is populated with stem cells from the patient’s own abdominal fat and placed inside a bioreactor, which mimics the finely calibrated conditions within the human body, enabling the bone to grow. Because bone tissue is constantly renewing itself, the animal scaffold will eventually be replaced with the patient’s own bone. Vunjak-Novakovic believes that EpiBone is the only company that can customise a patient’s bone to their biology and anatomical shape.

In 2016, she was granted a European patent for the bone regeneration method she developed. She says patents have been crucial to the commercial translation of her research. “If we see we have a technology that is patentable – meaning something non-obvious which could make a major difference in some area of science, engineering or medicine,” she says, “then we would always file a provisional patent application before we talk about the finding at scientific meetings or publish a paper about it.”

Vunjak-Novakovic has also developed a protocol for engineering adult-like heart tissue, which is currently commercialized by TARA Biosystems, another company she co-founded. It creates living heart tissue for biomedical research, including in vitro testing of new drugs. She is also co-leading efforts to regenerate badly damaged lungs for transplantation, by connecting them to the recipient’s circulatory system for several days before the transplant takes place, which may have positive implications for the success of lung transplants. At present, up to 80% of donor lungs are rejected for serious but potentially reversible injuries.

EpiBone hopes to target engineered bone products for children with congenital deformations of the head and face. Currently, children with such conditions must undergo several surgeries over the years because replacement grafts are needed as the child grows.

Championing tissue engineering
With more than 53,400 citations and more than 420 journal articles, Vunjak-Novakovic is today among the most highly cited engineers in the world and has received numerous awards and recognitions throughout her career. In 2007, she became the first woman engineer to give a Director’s Lecture at the National Institutes of Health, and the following year she was inducted into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame.

Along with EpiBone, which currently has 20 employees and has attracted more than $11.9M USD in funding, Vunjak-Novakovic has co-founded three other companies. These include TARA Biosystems, which engineers heart-like tissue for use in drug screening; Xylyx Bio, which manufactures tissue-specific substrates to support cell growth; and Immplacate Health, which is using mesenchymal stem cells to suppress various autoimmune and inflammatory disorders. She is currently investigating whether their technology could repair lungs damaged by COVID-19 and testing a new treatment based on inhalation therapy, where the active component of the medicine is a molecule secreted by the stem cells.

Along with her entrepreneurship and scientific excellence, Vunjak-Novakovic has also shown an impressive commitment to support colleagues and nurture a new generation of researchers, having trained over 150 junior faculty, clinical fellows, post-doctoral students, and medical and graduate students, many of whom are now either faculty at universities across the world or executives in the biotech industry. She considers her role as a mentor as among the most satisfying contributions of her career: “Mentoring is the best and most important component of what we do in academia. The future of engineering and medicine rests on young talent engaged in scientific research,” she says.

About the inventor
Serbian-American biomedical engineer Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic was born in Belgrade, Serbia, in 1948. Currently residing in New York, USA, she is University Professor, the highest academic rank at Columbia University, and the first engineer to ever receive this distinction. She is also the Mikati Foundation’s Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Medical Sciences, Professor of Dental Medicine and Director of the Laboratory for Stem Cells and Tissue Engineering at Columbia University, New York. In 2008 Vunjak-Novakovic was inducted into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame and has received numerous awards, including the Pritzker Award of the Biomedical Engineering Society, and Shu Chien Award of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. In 2020, she was decorated with the Order of the Star of Karađorđe, Serbia’s highest honour. In 2021, she received the Pierre Galletti Award, the highest honour that the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering bestows on an individual. She has been elected to the Academia Europaea, Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, National Academy of Medicine, National Academy of Inventors, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Vunjak-Novakovic is named in many patents, including EP2408401 and EP1112348, granted in 2016 and 2005 respectively, which form the basis for her nomination as a finalist of the European Inventor Award 2021.

View the video and photo material for Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic

About the European Inventor Award
The European Inventor Award is one of Europe's most prestigious innovation prizes. Launched by the EPO in 2006, it honors individual inventors and teams of inventors whose pioneering inventions provide answers to some of the biggest challenges of our times. The finalists and winners are selected by an independent jury consisting of international authorities from the fields of business, politics, science, academia and research who examine the proposals for their contribution towards technical progress, social development, economic prosperity and job creation in Europe. The Award is conferred in five categories (Industry, Research, SMEs, Non-EPO countries and Lifetime achievement). In addition, the public selects the winner of the Popular Prize from among the 15 finalists through online voting.

About the EPO
With 6,400 staff, the European Patent Office (EPO) is one of the largest public service institutions in Europe. Headquartered in Munich with offices in Berlin, Brussels, The Hague and Vienna, the EPO was founded with the aim of strengthening co-operation on patents in Europe. Through the EPO's centralised patent granting procedure, inventors are able to obtain high-quality patent protection in up to 44 countries, covering a market of some 700 million people. The EPO is also the world's leading authority in patent information and patent searching.

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