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Engineering professor fleshes out a new way to study biological tissue

Karen Yan is manufacturing the natural.

The biomedical and mechanical engineering professor researches tissue engineering — a multidisciplinary field focused on developing functional tissues that can repair or replace damaged biological tissues. Artificial skin, for example, is one of the successful applications of engineered tissues.

If it sounds like science fiction, think again. It has taken Yan years of research and countless successes and failures to advance the field of tissue engineering, and soon she will undoubtedly make new contributions to the field.

Previous methods that have successfully fabricated these tissues involve highly specialized equipment that is often cost-prohibitive for researchers. Yan’s hydrogel molding method, which is based on 3D printing, does not require such specialized equipment and it enables researchers to better mimic the complex environment of native tissues.

“After more than 30 years of research and development, tissue engineering is still an emerging field, especially in the clinical settings,” she says. “What we do is a very small part of this grand field. Hopefully the method we developed will allow more researchers to have access to this tool.”

Yan is about to start her sabbatical year adapting a commercially available 3D bioprinter for hydrogel printing at her undergraduate alma mater, the University of Science and Technology of China.

With support from the 2019 Gitenstein-Hart Sabbatical Prize, Yan will work with fellow engineers at USTC to test the efficacy and applicability of her construction method.

“We’re engineers. We solve problems. That’s what we do,” she says.

— Sarah Voorhees ’20