Building Bone from Scratch: an Interview with Ronke Olabisi

Feb. 14, 2024 - Ronke Olabisi, associate professor of biomedical engineering at UC Irvine, discusses her journey into tissue engineering and how she uses biosynthetic materials to construct a diversity of tissue types. 

What sparked your initial interest in the field?

I started in aerospace engineering because of a lifelong dream to be an astronaut. In an aerospace engineering class, a professor challenged us to design a material for a non-aerospace application. I picked bone and have been hooked ever since. Bone is my absolute favorite tissue and discovering that it is extremely impacted by spaceflight was even more of a draw.

Could you explain your research into the development of biosynthetic materials for tissue engineering applications? 

In the same way that buildings are built by first erecting scaffolding and then building within that structure, organs require scaffolding that cells can fill. When the body does it, it’s called the extracellular matrix. When we do it, we call them tissue engineering scaffolds. There are hundreds of biological cues within these extracellular matrices that we are nowhere near recapitulating. So, one approach is to borrow these scaffolds from the extracellular matrices of donor tissues. But these are not perfect, and it is difficult to tease out why.  

My approach is to use synthetic materials, which are kind of a blank slate since they have zero biological cues. Then, I can add biological signals one by one. This ranges from a single peptide to an entire synthetically encapsulated cell. All the added signals are borrowed from nature and in this way we can tease out the necessary components to direct tissue growth. The ultimate goal is to grow organs on demand for those that need them. 

What are the intended clinical applications of these biosynthetic materials?  

Ultimately, the goal is to use these materials as scaffolds to grow organs for those who are waiting on donation lists; or to serve as therapeutic delivery devices to deliver missing hormones or drugs to target sites. 

What led you to specifically focus on neural, musculoskeletal and retinal tissues?

Aside from bone, which is still a focus, each one was a happy accident. We discovered that encapsulated cells – cells enveloped in an immuno-protective artificial material – could deliver therapeutic cell products and accelerate wound healing faster than we anticipated. While we were experimenting with a scaffold to accelerate bone formation, we caused the transdifferentiation of neuronal cells. Finally, a student was curious about the basement membrane of the retina and discovered that we could affect retinal tissue fate by altering the stiffness of the scaffolds. 

What challenges do you face in your work?

Cost. Every researcher is looking for funding to do their work. The ancient Greek/Roman set-up where artists had a wealthy patron who supported them sounds very appealing. 

In celebration of Black History Month, are there any black figures that have played a pivotal role in influencing and shaping your scientific career? 

Mae Jemison – the first African American woman to travel into space – helped me get closer to achieving my goal than any other human. She has been a wonderful mentor and friend.  I made it to the final 50 astronaut interviewees. It is a hard thing saying goodbye to a dream, so I fully plan to one day break the bank just to be a space tourist.  

– Reposted from RegMedNet