When Treena Livingston Arinzeh, MS ’94, was first encouraged by a high school teacher in Cherry Hill, New Jersey to consider a career in engineering, she hardly imagined that she would one day be engineering cures for devastating medical conditions. While most of her peers dreamed of growing up to be doctors and lawyers, professions with which she was familiar, she didn’t really know what engineers do.
With a passion for physics and math, she hit her stride as a mechanical engineering major at Rutgers University. But it wasn’t until her master’s degree in biomedical engineering through the Whiting School’s Part-Time Programs (now Engineering Programs for Professionals) that she began to understand the power of applying engineering principles to medicine, particularly through the use of stem cells. “Here we had these interesting cells and this young field [of stem cell research],” says Arinzeh who went on to earn her PhD at the University of Pennsylvania. “The potential was so huge.”
In the decade since, the 36-year-old (who typically publishes under the name Livingston) has made those remarkable cells the focus of her career. Now an associate professor of biomedical engineering at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) in Newark, New Jersey, she’s finding ways to use stem cells to repair some of the trickiest tissues in the human body.
After completing her graduate studies, Arinzeh joined Osiris Therapeutics Inc., a Baltimore-based stem cell technology company. There, her research team developed a method to repair bone damaged by trauma or tumors by creating a demineralized bone matrix derived from donor tissue that can act as a scaffold to support bone-building adult stem cells. This product, which received FDA approval, is now available on the market. However, while she enjoyed her work at Osiris, she felt she could “make more of an impact in an academic setting.” In 2001, Arinzeh decided to return to the world of academia, this time as the teacher.
At NJIT, she continued her research in stem cell therapies. To overcome the hurdle of limited availability of donor tissue from cadavers, she set out to develop synthetic biomaterials— using ceramics and polymers—to serve as nano-scaffolds for bone marrow-derived stem cells. Developing a biologically compatible product that could withstand stresses, bear weight, and degrade like real bone was no small feat. What’s more, modifying the surface of the material so that new cells can adhere to the nano-scaffolds presented significant challenges. “You have to coax stem cells to sit on it [the nano-scaffold] and grow into mature cells and new tissue,” she explains.
In a second breakthrough, Arinzeh published a study in the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery in 2003 showing for the first time that adult stem cells taken from one person could be implanted in another without causing an adverse immune response.
Arinzeh has extended her research to explore using biomaterials and stem cells to repair damaged cartilage—a challenge that presents even more obstacles than repairing bone because cartilage normally doesn’t heal once it tears. And most recently, she has begun to look into scaffolds and stem cell combinations to heal spinal cord injuries—perhaps her toughest challenge yet. “Regenerated neurons need to make all the right connections to restore function,” she explains. Working with a neurosurgeon, her group is investigating biomaterials that may one day be able to guide astoundingly complex nerve extensions.
Arinzeh’s work has earned national attention. Three years ago, she was one of only eight in the country to win the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. Bestowed at the White House, the honor acknowledged her work, funded by the National Science Foundation, investigating how adult stem cells fundamentally interact with the surfaces of materials.
And even as she pushes the boundaries of her field, Arinzeh maintains space every summer for aspiring scientists from Newark high schools. Working on stem cell projects, they get firsthand experience creating technologies that have the potential to improve human lives.
And they return to school with something Arinzeh did not have in high school—a clear picture of what it is that engineers do.