Interview with Cato T. Laurencin about Regenerative Engineering

The RE Society Journal recently did an interview with Cato T. Laurencin, M.D., Ph.D. to discuss the field of regenerative engineering. Dr. Laurencin is the founding director for the Institute for Regenerative Engineering and Raymond and Beverly Sackler Center for Biomedical, Biological, Physical and Engineering Sciences at University of Connecticut Health Center. He also serves as the chief executive officer of the Connecticut Institute for Clinical and Translational Science. 

RE Journal: What are the current status and emerging trends in the regenerative engineering field?

Cato Laurencin: The future of regeneration we believe is in taking an "un-siloed" approach to thinking about regeneration. For instance we have studied how cells interact with biomaterials, with an eye toward understanding biocompatibility. We now have to more closely examine methods by which the physical and chemical makeup of cells can manipulate cellular activities. We have thought about developmental biology as a distinct field. We must think of morphogenesis and developmental biology as a tool to integrate into the regenerative engineering armamentarium. It is with this open perspective toward fully integrating disparate technologies that we can achieve new science and new solutions.

RE Journal: What are the significant bottlenecks in the regenerative engineering field limiting its development? How can we overcome those bottlenecks?

Cato Laurencin: There are a number of bottlenecks. I will touch upon a few. First, scientists and engineers by their nature are trained to master one area of endeavor. Study and mastery of multiple disparate fields is difficult, both in training and in practice. Second, funding agencies often have grants panels with individuals trained in specific sub-fields, making it difficult to appreciate the complexities involved in a convergence approach. Still more difficult may be to fully explain a number of complex approaches in one grant application with page limits, versus an application which delves into one area of science. Universities often grant promotion and tenure using criteria developed 50 years ago. The value of team science, and the value of convergence approaches—working in a number of areas of science and engineering—are often not appreciated or rewarded.

RE Journal: Since the concept of regenerative engineering is defined as the convergence of tissue engineering with advanced material science, stem cell science, and developmental biology, what was the toughest challenge for your team during integration of these distinct research fields?

Cato Laurencin: The toughest challenge lies in what Moms Mabley once said: If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got. Training individuals to think outside their comfort zone of science and delving into multiple fields, and obtaining mastery of them, rather than hoping to accomplish their work through collaborations with scientists siloed into other fields, is a great challenge. It is one that we continually face.

RE Journal: How did you compose your regenerative engineering team and what were your criteria to organize the right team for regenerative engineering?

Cato Laurencin: We have teams of people in all the fundamental areas of regenerative engineering: materials science, stem cell science, physics, developmental biology, and clinical translation. While the team leaders have primary interests in one area, we make sure that each member is a part of three teams, learning and growing in the science of the other teams. It is only in that way that we hope the convergence approach will thrive.

RE Journal: During your research to regenerate complex multitissue and biological systems, what was the most challenging part of combining different types of tissues, while repairing each tissue requires different types of biomaterials, signaling molecules, and cells? What was your strategy to solve it?

Cato Laurencin: The biggest challenge is making it work! My strategy comes perhaps from my background in orthopaedic surgery, where we often must repair and regenerate complex tissues. Our philosophy is that to a great extent we must respect and work with the body's own functions in the repair and regeneration process. Only then can we really achieve true regeneration.

RE Journal: What are the important factors we should consider to translate regenerative engineering research into clinics?

Cato Laurencin: There are so many, but let me point out one. Our definition of regenerative engineering includes clinical translation. We believe that clinicians must be fully vested in the research and clinical translation process. For instance our regenerative engineering team includes a physical medicine and rehabilitation clinical specialist. We recognize that rehabilitation protocols will be different for treatment of regenerative engineered therapies versus the processes we currently use for normal injury repair. Having a specialist in that area is important in designing the clinical pathways so crucial for successful clinical outcomes.

RE Journal: Does the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have clear regulation and guideline for conducting clinical testing of regenerative engineering therapy?

Cato Laurencin: No, but I think that they are cognizant of the drawbacks on this. I am optimistic about the future of the FDA in that regard. The 21st Century Cures Act contains specific language aimed at breaking down barriers to bringing regenerative therapies to patients.

RE Journal: What is your expectation for regenerative engineering over the next 25 years?

Cato Laurencin: Regenerative engineering was born from the need to create therapies to help people, to affect the lives of people, to bring hope, comfort, help, and eventually cures. My expectation is that we will achieve this.

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Learn more about the Regenerative Engineering and Translational Medicine Journal.