Dr. Laura Niklason Describes Cutting-Edge Biomedical Research at Convening Yale
The "eureka moment" came for Dr. Laura Niklason while on she was on rotation during her residency. The group stopped at a patient with blocked arteries, and Niklason, who is now a professor of biomedical engineering and anesthesia at Yale, watched as the attending physicians searched for a suitable vein to use in a bypass operation. "The doctor was just hunting and hunting for a decent vein and I thought, wouldn't it be cool if you could just grow new ones in the lab?" she said.
Nikalson spoke on February 16 as part of Convening Yale, a series of seminars that brings faculty from around the university to Yale SOM to discuss their research. Previous guests include Ramamurti Shankar, the John Randolph Huffman Professor of Physics; Marvin Chun, professor of psychology; and Charles Hill, Brady-Johnson Distinguished Fellow in Grand Strategy and senior lecturer in humanities. The series is organized by Shyam Sunder, the James L. Frank Professor of Accounting, Economics, and Finance, and Martijn Cremers, associate professor of finance, with the intention of helping Yale SOM students stretch their thinking about complex management and leadership problems.
Nikalson's idea for lab-grown arteries has become a major source of research for her, and if trials progress as expected, could be a commercial product in a few years. She walked the Yale SOM audience through the process of creating the arteries, which are collagen tubes grown from human stem cells and then transplanted into any number of places in the body. She has been working on them for the past 15 years; she helped launch a company to manufacture and sell the arteries in 2005. "We're only a couple months from our first human trials, where they'll be used as implants for dialysis," she said. "When I started working on it in 1995, back then people thought I was completely nuts. Even good friends laughed out loud in my face."
Collagen arteries may eventually be used for a number of problems, including kidney issues, diverting urine in patients with bladder cancer, and heart bypass. The process has numerous other uses, too. One of the most exciting areas of research in Nikalson's lab is on regenerating damaged lungs, a process similar to growing an artery but much more complicated. Over six years, Niklason and her fellow researchers have developed a method for regenerating the lungs of rats, reaching a point where a lung essentially grown in a lab worked for a few hours in the rat before complications developed. An article on the research in 2010 went viral, leading to a crush of attention and a mention in Time magazine as one of the year's top inventions. "The best part," she said, "is that we beat the iPad."