Bioengineering, Medicine and Translational Research
University of Colorado Boulder
Dr. Anseth is also Tisone and Distinguished Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder and an associate professor of surgery in the School of Medicine at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, Denver.
Kristi Anseth and her research group pioneer the development of biomaterials to serve as synthetic extracellular matrix (ECM) analogs that capture key features of the biochemical and biophysical aspects of a cell’s niche – an environment that is not only tissue specific, but can be strikingly heterogeneous and dynamic. Unique to her approach is the ability to create cell-laden matrices in three-dimensional space in which the matrix properties can be changed on demand – so-called 4D biology. Ultimately, Dr. Anseth and her group seek to understand how cells sense, store, and exchange information with the ECM and then use this knowledge to engineer biomaterial niches as cell delivery vehicles for tissue regeneration, in vitro models of disease, and physiologically-relevant models for drug discovery and screening. Her materials-first approach provides tools to perform unique cell biology experiments and address major hurdles in regenerative medicine.
Anseth's recent progress includes innovations in both photochemical and bio-click reactions to manipulate biomaterial properties in space and time, along with lithographic processes and confocal microscopy to perform these reactions in real time and in cell-laden matrices. She pursues application of these bioscaffolds to: (i) elucidate how specific extracellular signals influence stem cell differentiation, (ii) promote and mimic cell-cell interactions and to protect transplanted cells from the immune response via bioactive interfaces, and (iii) understand the fibroblast-to-myofibroblast transition in fibrosis, with an emphasis on the role of mechanotransduction.
Grants from the National Institutes of Health provide support for work on the osteogenic differentiation of mesenchymal stem cells and bone regeneration, the synthesis of niches to study heart valve fibrosis, and the development of functionalized gels to facilitate islet function and suppress deleterious effects of the immune system. Beyond these targeted applications, fundamental research related to material development is supported by the National Science Foundation.
As of April 20, 2016
Kristi Anseth works at the intersection of three fields—engineering, chemistry, and biology—to design polymers that imitate living tissues, with the goal of helping the body heal itself. The polymers are meant to serve as scaffolds, or templates, on which cells can grow to replace diseased or damaged body parts, including knees, hips, cartilage, and heart valves—all without the trauma of major surgery.
Anseth is developing liquid precursors that are designed to be injected into the body and then solidified with light through a process called photopolymerization, which essentially links individual molecules together, providing the strength, stability, and flexibility to grow new cells in a three-dimensional framework. All the while, the polymers would support and guide the healing of damaged tissues before gradually dissolving as natural tissue fills in.
A chemical engineer by training, Anseth said she has always been drawn to research with medical relevance and was especially intrigued by the evolving field of tissue engineering. "This is the quintessential engineering problem," Anseth explained. "Designing polymers that can serve as cell scaffolds requires control on many size scales—from molecules to cells to functional subunits of cells to tissues and organs to the entire human body—and on many time scales—from a fraction of a second to several months."
After graduating from Purdue University with a degree in chemical engineering, Anseth went to the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she received a Ph.D. in chemical engineering in just two years. She then worked as a research fellow for two years before returning to her Colorado alma mater as an assistant professor of chemical engineering. Within a decade, she has been named an endowed chair and a distinguished professor, filed for 18 patents, and published nearly 180 research articles—quite an accomplishment for a researcher in her early 40s.
At Colorado, Anseth has already made great progress in designing and building polymers. In 2003, she and her students were the first to successfully develop an injectable and biodegradable scaffold to regenerate cartilage. These scaffolds are designed to be injected into a joint, the knee, for example, along with chondrocytes, the cells that secrete cartilage. Though it is not yet ready for clinical use, such scaffolds hold promise for treating osteoarthritis, which is caused by wear and tear on the cartilage that lines joints, as well as cartilage damaged by injuries and congenital cartilage defects.
Anseth and her students are also collaborating with other investigators to engineer human heart valves. This project is proving to be more challenging because it requires the scaffold to give instructions to the cells and provide an environment where cells can communicate with each other. But the benefit to patients would be huge. Each year in the United States, an estimated 20,000 patients die of heart-valve dysfunction, and existing surgical treatments are far from ideal. They include replacing damaged valves with mechanical valves, which require patients to take blood thinners for the rest of their lives to reduce the risk of blood clots, or heart valves from pigs, which eventually wear out.
As a faculty scientist, Anseth spends a great deal of time teaching students, both undergraduates and graduates, in the classroom and in her laboratory. Her creativity in the classroom has been recognized by several teaching awards, and working with students is part of her job that Anseth especially enjoys. "Beyond teaching the basic scientific method, I try to get my students to take risks and to explore the unexpected," Anseth explained. "This is where some of the most interesting results lie."