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Symposium X—Frontiers of Materials Research

Plenary Session Featuring the Fred Kavli Distinguished Lectureship in Materials Science

Tuesday-plenaryCato T. Laurencin, University of Connecticut

Regenerative Engineering: Convergence Built Upon Materials Science

Written by Aditi Risbud

At Tuesday’s plenary session, Cato T. Laurencin of the University of Connecticut discussed his work on regenerative engineering in the context of materials science and engineering. Laurencin studies musculoskeletal injuries from the viewpoint of scientific and clinical research. Musculoskeletal injuries affect one out of every seven people in the United States each year and result in societal costs of more than $250 billion.

Laurencin was inspired to enter this area of research in the 1980s after a talk by Y.C. Fung, who coined the term “tissue engineering” at a National Science Foundation workshop. Laurencin defines tissue engineering as “the application of biological, chemical, and engineering principles toward the repair, restoration, or regeneration of living tissues using biomaterials, cells, and factors alone or in combination.”

Now, 25 years after Fung’s talk, Laurencin said the future of tissue engineering lies in regenerative engineering using biomaterials. This “convergence” of advanced materials science, stem cell science, physics, developmental biology and clinical translation lead to the regeneration of complex tissues, organs, or organ systems.

From a materials science perspective, most research in this “convergence” area focuses on nanoscale interactions. In particular, nanoscale surface architecture can strongly influence cellular events at the cell/materials interface because cells are highly sensitive to their physical surroundings. For example, increased sites become available for protein adhesion due to the increase in surface area per unit volume compared with traditional materials surfaces. In general, Laurencin said, nanomaterials create “a more biomimetic environment” for cells to interact with various substrates.

Laurencin and his colleagues published seminal, highly cited work in 2001 on engineered nanofiber structures for regeneration of tissue. The work started when Laurencin met Frank Ko, a faculty member at Drexel University studying textiles manufacturing using nanofibers. Laurencin noticed the diameter of the nanofibers was similar to that of collagen, and predicted they could be tailored for biological purposes using electrospinning techniques.

Initially, Laurencin and his colleagues used nanofibers to develop substrates for skin regeneration. This project was in keeping with Laurencin’s model of pursuing research based on clinical need: approximately 2.4 million people suffer burn injuries each year in the United States.

By adjusting the diameter of polylactic acid-glycolic acid nanofibers, the researchers could examine growth characteristics and morphology of human skin fibroblast growth on various materials during a 14-day period. Depending on the nanofiber diameter, the cell growth in different areas could be modulated inside the nanofiber. This finding introduced a new level of control over cell growth on substrates.

Laurencin and his colleagues have applied nanofiber matrices and scaffolds to “augment healing” of musculoskeletal injuries by developing materials that mimic the mechanical strength of natural tendons. Using animal models, injuries affecting millions of people can be investigated, including rotator cuff injuries in the shoulder, tendon gaps in the Achilles and ligament reconstruction in the ACL. Major findings from these investigations showed nanofiber matrices alone could aid regeneration but mechanical properties were enhanced using adipose-derived stem cells.

After nearly three decades of work in regenerative engineering, Laurencin is launching a new “moonshot” initiative called the Hartford Engineering a Limb program. This program has the ambitious goal of regenerating a knee joint in seven years and a limb in 15 years using regenerative engineering technologies. Laurencin said materials science and engineering will be the “backbone” of their efforts moving forward.

Laurencin also shared his passion at the beginning of the talk for the men’s and women’s basketball teams at the University of Connecticut, who have excelled in recent years in the NCAA basketball tournament.

Dr. Laurencin discussed his work in this interview with MRS TV:


The Kavli Foundation is dedicated to advancing science for the benefit of humanity, promoting public understanding of scientific research and supporting scientists and their work.

The Foundation’s mission is implemented through an international program of research institutes, professorships, symposia and other initiatives in the fields of astrophysics, nanoscience, neuroscience and theoretical physics. The Foundation is also a founding partner of the Kavli Prizes, which recognize scientists for their seminal advances in astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience.


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