Researcher's $375,000 regenerative medicine boost

11 February, 2013

Body tissue engineer Jess Frith will determine the role of specific molecules in cell development in world-first research, with plans to use the knowledge to repair bones and cartilage.

Dr Frith, from The University of Queensland (UQ), will combine cells with biomaterials to reconstruct body tissues in the lab with the aim to one day potentially treating osteoporosis, osteoarthritis or intervertebral disc degeneration.

Her project, being undertaken at UQ's Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, has received a boost from a $375,000 Australian Research Council (ARC) award.

The ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher Award will fund Dr Frith's research costs at AIBN's Tissue Engineering and Microfluidics Laboratory for the next three years.

"I think regenerative medicine has the potential to transform medicine in the future but a major hurdle in achieving this is our ability to make cells behave as we want," Dr Frith said.

"We are working with specific stem cells derived from people's bone marrow. They can be used to generate bone, cartilage, muscle and fat cells.

"The cells need to turn into the correct tissue type. Controlling this is difficult. We know that stem cells are very sensitive to the environment around them."

Dr Frith plans to investigate whether molecules called microRNAs play an important role in how the response of cells to their environment determines cell development.

"I will be using biomaterials to see if I can influence microRNAs and see if I can push stem cells to form specific tissues," she said.

Dr Frith said regenerative medicine was an exciting field "because of the fast pace of advances that have been made during the past few years".

She also has a more personal reason for wanting to see advances in the field.

"My mum has had a spinal fusion because of intervertebral disc problems. It was a major procedure and it still hasn't really fully solved the problem," she said.

"I would like to think that my research will one day lead to an effective alternative, where we can tissue engineer replacement tissues that are fully functional."

The ARC's DECRA scheme aims to provide more focused support and create more opportunities for early career researchers.