Engineering new tissue
Cheryl Gomillion is exploring new territory with soft tissue replacements.
As an undergraduate student at Clemson University, Cheryl Gomillion knew she wanted a career in the medical field but wasn’t sure she wanted to be a physician. A co-op experience with a pharmaceutical company and a conversation with a career counselor led her to graduate studies in bioengineering, a discipline she describes as “the best of both worlds.”
Now an assistant professor in the University of Georgia College of Engineering, Gomillion is working to develop natural tissue replacements to repair and restore damaged or diseased tissues. Gomillion hopes her research will help people facing medical challenges ranging from congenital disorders to breast cancer.
“A small part of what we do may eventually help many, many people in the future,” said Gomillion, who is also a member of UGA’s multidisciplinary Regenerative Bioscience Center.
Gomillion arrived in Athens this January after serving as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Connecticut Health Center and as a postdoctoral associate at the Yale University School of Medicine. While at Yale, Gomillion was part of a team of researchers and physicians seeking new treatments for children with Crouzon syndrome.
“Crouzon syndrome is a genetic disorder that causes the bones of the skull to fuse prematurely,” Gomillion explained. “When this happens, it prevents the skull from growing normally and affects the shape of the head and face. Crouzon syndrome can also lead to other problems such as a loss of hearing or vision.”
Gomillion’s research at UGA will follow a similar path as her work at Yale. She’s focusing on developing composite tissue replacements including skin, muscle, tendon, nerve and bone, primarily for craniofacial and orthopedic applications.
According to Gomillion, a large proportion of current tissue engineering research is focused on bone tissue. But craniofacial congenital defects, tumor removal and traumatic injuries—such as those sustained in automobile accidents or military combat—also result in significant loss of the soft tissue surrounding damaged bones.
“I came to UGA because of the collaboration that happens every day in the College of Engineering.”
— Cheryl Gomillion
To repair or replace damaged tissue, tissue engineering researchers have proposed using a combination of cells obtained from healthy patient tissue and biomaterial “scaffolds” that support cell growth and subsequent tissue formation. A part of Gomillion’s research will examine how these scaffolds—which can be made of both natural and synthetic materials—interact with tissue cells.
“One major question is how do we optimize scaffold design so the cells can thrive,” Gomillion said. “It is essential to find ways to keep the cells viable and to find ways to keep the tissue that they form long-lasting. We also need to make sure the cells function properly to promote the formation and growth of natural tissues.”
Other goals of Gomillion’s research include studying potential cell sources that lend themselves to the regeneration of multiple tissue types, creating implants that simultaneously support tissue formation and minimize bacterial infections commonly associated with large-scale injures, and improving minimally invasive technologies for craniofacial procedures.
Gomillion believes such breakthroughs in tissue replacement research will require scientists from a variety of disciplines working together. This interdisciplinary approach to research is one of the things that attracted her to UGA.
“I came to UGA because of the collaboration that happens every day in the College of Engineering. I may know about the biological aspects of a particular application, but I may not know all about the chemistry important for solving a particular problem,” she said. “Here, I can collaborate with people who have that expertise, and they’re often right down the hallway. There’s also a tremendous opportunity to work with researchers in other schools and colleges on campus.”
— Mike Wooten, College of Engineering