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Research Areas

Organ malformation, damage and failure are the most common causes of human morbidity and mortality. It is estimated yearly that more than 35,000 infants will be born with organ malformations, 100,000 people will have their limbs amputated, 5,000 people waiting for organs will die without receiving a transplant, and 1 million people will die from organ disease. The goal of the Regenerative Biology and Tissue Engineering Theme (RBTE) is to develop the knowledge base and technologies that are needed to replace or regenerate human tissues and organs and thereby solve these severe health issues and contribute to improving life quality and welfare.

To achieve this goal, RBTE scientists are pursuing three related avenues of research. First, RBTE scientists are using stem cell and developmental approaches to investigate how organs form and regenerate. Second, RBTE scientists are using the knowledge gained from stem cell and developmental studies to regenerate tissues and organs in a series of model and non-model organisms. Third, RBTE scientists are translating their research from model and non-model organisms into humans. These three research avenues are discussed in more detail below. With this multi-faceted approach, RBTE scientists are making major strides toward developing regenerative technologies that will positively impact the lives of the many people suffering from organ malformation, damage and failure.

Stem Cell and Developmental Biology: An understanding of the cellular and developmental processes underlying organ and tissue growth provides a critical and necessary foundation for organ and tissue regeneration. Organ regeneration is a complex process that requires the simultaneous replacement of bones, skeletal muscles and tendons, and the re-growth of nerves, blood vessels and skin. Therefore, before organs can be regenerated, the developmental basis of all of these events must be understood. To pursue this goal, RBTE scientists are utilizing a diversity of research approaches that fall into two broad categories: stem cell research and developmental biology. In regard to stem cell research, RBTE scientists are studying cell fate determination. In this research, RBTE scientists are investigating the signals that transform an undifferentiated cell into one that is tissue or organ specific. In regard to developmental biology, RBTE scientists are investigating the cellular and molecular processes that underpin normal organ and tissue development in model and non-model organisms.

Regeneration in Animal Models: RBTE scientists are applying the knowledge gained from research in stem cell and developmental biology to regenerate tissues and organs in many model and non-model animals. Animals being studied include frogs, mice, rats, rabbits, pigs, and opossums. This research forms an essential foundation for organ and tissue regeneration in humans. Specifically, research in animal models can provide significant insights into the cellular and molecular processes that underpin organ and tissue regeneration. RBTE scientists are taking two major approaches to regenerate tissues in animal models. In the first, RBTE scientists are comparing the cellular and molecular processes operating in tissues and organs that are capable of regeneration with the processes operating in tissues and organs that are not. In this way, RBTE scientists are able to identify specific processes that underpin organ and tissue regeneration. In the second approach, RBTE scientists are applying the principles of bioengineering and materials science to tissue and organ regeneration. In this innovative approach, RBTE scientists are using engineered scaffolds, tissues, bioactive molecules, and cells to enhance organ and tissue regeneration with great success.

Translational Research on Human Regeneration: The ultimate goal of regenerative biology is to successfully regenerate tissues and organs in humans. To achieve this goal, RBTE scientists have established active research collaborations with medical doctors at several institutions, including the Mayo Clinic, University of Illinois at Chicago, Northwestern University, and Carle Hospital. Through these collaborations, RBTE scientists are translating the knowledge gained from stem cell, developmental, and regenerative research in model and non-model animals to organ and tissue regeneration in humans. These translational efforts involve the use of biodegradable scaffolds in combination with growth factors and adult stem cells as treatments for large bone and/or cartilage trauma or disease. Areas of focus include the regeneration of bone in the skull, spine, long bones and digits, and of cartilage in the face, trachea, and joints. The methodology employed could reduce or even eliminate the need for bone harvest and grafting procedures, decreasing the number of patient surgeries.