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Biotechnology and the Life Sciences Energy and the Environment
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Two Roads to the Same Destination
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Mathematician Kristin Bennett, computer scientist Bulent Yener, and biologist George Plopper have teamed up to figure out what determines stem cells’ destinations and how to chart their course for medical purposes.
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Two Roads
to the Same Destination

George Plopper leads a team that is trying to understand the complex pathway that causes adult stem cells to form bone instead of cartilage or fat. The long-term goal of the NIH-funded research is to learn how to transfer stem cells into sites of bone injury under optimal conditions that will cause them to reproduce rapidly and greatly speed bone healing.

In addition to cells, all living tissue contains a complex mixture of nonliving material known as the extracellular matrix (ECM). The ECM provides support and anchorage for cells, but it also fills other roles, including regulation of intercellular communication. Plopper, associate professor of biology, is working to show how contact with ECM proteins can set off the transformation from stem cell to bone.

This highly interdisciplinary project requires a number of collaborations. Kristin Bennett, professor of mathematical sciences, Bulent Yener, associate professor of computer science, and Plopper, for example, recently published in the journal BMC Genetics their discovery that there is more than one route to making bone. Multiple biological pathways may mean more opportunities for therapeutic intervention to help patients with bone injury or disease. The finding, however, greatly complicates efforts to model the process.

At Rensselaer, Plopper also works with Jan Stegemann, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, to create mechanisms for delivering the stem cells; and with Badri Roysam, professor of electrical, computer, and systems engineering, to develop 3-D quantitative imaging tools to measure stem cell growth and differentiation in situ. At the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, he collaborates with Adele Boskey to measure bone matrix formation.

See also: Closing the Stem Cell Gap (Rensselaer Magazine)

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