The Future of Regenerative Medicine
Posted 27th August 2018 by Jane Williams
Kurt Hankenson works at the interface of basic and clinical research, encompassing what is commonly referred to as “translational research”. His laboratory is part of the Orthopaedic Research Laboratories at the University of Michigan Medical School. The Orthopaedic Research Laboratories, which Hankenson refers to as the ORL, is a consortium of faculty laboratories and there are six members who are focused on studying different aspects of orthopaedics; from bone to soft tissue injuries.
The Hankenson Laboratory is focused on discovering novel approaches to regenerate bone. The approach of the laboratory is to use fundamental mechanistic understanding of cell differentiation to guide new regenerative therapies. Particularly, Dr. Hankenson’s laboratory studies the cellular and molecular mechanisms by which mesenchymal stem cells differentiate to become bone forming osteoblasts.
Currently, their research is geared towards developing local mediators to promote bone regeneration and then thinking about how they can deliver molecules and/or activate molecules locally to promote healing. They’ve recently worked with a protein called Jagged-1, which is bound to various biomaterials to enhance bone healing in several different models. This approach is also used in the lab for other proteins and signalling pathways. In his presentation at the Global Biomaterials and Tissue Engineering Congress, Dr. Hankenson will discuss approaches in the laboratory to manipulate these various cell signaling pathways to accelerate bone healing.
Hankenson trained to be a veterinarian and was an equine practitioner for two years. Throughout his training, he was always interested by inquiry and wanted to learn more about diseases: “As a practitioner, I felt frustrated by the lack of knowledge that we had about the clinical conditions we were treating”. For Hankenson, that was the prime motivator for him to leave the practice and pursue advanced graduate training. He did a master’s degree at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana and a PhD at the University of Washington in Seattle.
He says that the best thing about working in academia in the orthopaedics and biomaterials space is having a job “where you’re permitted the freedom to answer questions and to try to find the answers to the unknown. In life, there’s not a lot of opportunities to do that as a professional […] I appreciate how lucky I am to have a job which is, by and large, supported by the taxpayers and I feel very grateful for that”.
The collaborative aspect is also something that Hankenson enjoys, as well as the “ability to work with others”. Fundamentally, he is not a “biomaterials person” and says that he is more of a biologist, but academia has enabled him to establish incredible collaborations with biomaterial and tissue experts, which has ultimately enriched the whole experience for him by “developing new critical approaches and friendships”.
But, with all the benefits that working within the biomaterials space can provide, it does have its challenges. Hankenson believes that the biggest barrier to moving approaches into the clinic is funding: “As a basic scientist, you might have some good ideas about potential therapeutics, but trying to get the financial support to move that forward is definitely the biggest challenge. I don’t think it’s the lack of creativity, or the lack of expertise, or lack of facilities. It really comes down to having the financial resources to do that”. Indeed, the cost and competition of these innovative ideas seems to be a key challenge, particularly for a niche area like regenerative medicine. According to CPI, smaller companies which address a smaller market demand risk losing their competitive edge if they do not complete their R&D phase early. R&D timeframes rely on funding, so it can provoke an “unfair race” for those with less connections in the field. 
In terms of the future of regenerative medicine, he considers it to be bright. “There are incredible scientists in chemistry and materials, developing cutting-edge next generation materials that we will hopefully be able to utilise to understand more about the biology of bone and tissue healing”. Hopefully, one day patients will have access to regenerative medicine treatments that will mean that waiting lists for organ transplants will be a distant memory. It will allow patients to use their own bodies to repair themselves, which will ultimately eliminate delayed treatment, expenses, and limited supply of organ transplantation. But this depends on whether we are able to “keep the barriers down for collaboration and as long as there’s the financial resources available from non-profits and governmental funding to support research”. With that said, Hankenson is very optimistic that we will continue to “make great advances in regenerative medicine”.
Kurt Hankenson is a Professor of Orthapaedic Surgery at the University of Michigan Medical School and is a member of the NIH Skeletal Biology Structure and Regeneration study section.
Take part in exciting discussions about the future of regenerative medicine at the Global Biomaterials and Tissue Engineering Congress. Find out more here.
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