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BIOMEDICAL ENGINEERING: Treena Livingston Arinzeh

BIOMEDICAL ENGINEERINGEngineering A Cure Treena Livingston Arinzeh

Title: Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering,
New Jersey Institute of Technology
Education: Ph.D., Bioengineering, University
of Pennsylvania; M.S., Biomedical Engineering,
Johns Hopkins University; B.S., Mechanical
Engineering, Rutgers University
Age: 34

To say that Dr. Treena Livingston Arinzeh is on a mission is no exaggeration. For Arinzeh, finding “scaffolds” that will help cure disease is what drives her research. Arinzeh has been recognized by President George W. Bush for her breakthrough stem cell research. She has shown that adult stem cells could help patients suffering from spinal cord injuries, bone and cartilage damage and related diseases. Her findings earned her a 2003 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers — the highest national honor for young scientists and engineers. Because Arinzeh works with stem cells from adult bone marrow, she hasn’t faced any of the ethical controversies over embryonic stem-cell research.

Her work has led to two discoveries. First, stem cells, when mixed with biomaterials known as scaffolds, can help regenerate bone growth and damaged tissue. The second is that stem cells from one person can be successfully implanted into another.  

Ironically, Arinzeh’s work might help one of her students, Suwah Amara, walk again. Amara, 22, has a rare, congenital bone disease that requires her to use crutches. Her brittle bones break easily and often. Once, she broke her forearm while uncapping a pen. She considers Arinzeh “quite an inspiration.” 

“Whether you are Black or White, you can look up to her,” says Amara, a senior in Arinzeh’s biomaterials class. “To see this woman and all that she has accomplished at a young age tells us that we can do it, too.”

Arinzeh’s own educational roots include a lifelong interest in math and science. The teacher of her high school physics class encouraged her to seek an engineering career, even though the girl had never met an African American engineer.

After earning her Ph.D., she went to work for Osiris Therapeutics Inc. in Baltimore as a product-development engineer. There, she saw the potential — and limitations — of stem cells by working with products from the research phase to clinical trials to the marketplace. Osiris researchers couldn’t overcome this obstacle: The stem cells needed a carrier, known as a scaffold, to adhere to, in order to cause the cells to differentiate and then turn into cartilage and bone tissue. The scaffold shares the same name as the framework supporting workers repairing a building because it has a similar, necessary function for the cells.

The problem sent Arinzeh back to academia to find a solution. Since joining New Jersey Institute of Technology in 2001, she has not only continued her research but also helped develop undergraduate and graduate curricula for the fledgling biomedical engineering department. During the fall 2004 semester, she taught an undergraduate biomaterials course and a graduate-level tissue-engineering course. Arinzeh shares how impressed she is with her students’ enthusiasm, compared to her own college days.

“They really participate in class, and we have a very interactive Q&A. I find it refreshing. They’re not only excelling but enjoying the material.”

On a personal level, Arinzeh’s determination to find the right scaffolds for stem cells has helped her student Amara stay on track with her studies, despite pain and depression from her disease. “I need to know what’s going on in my own body,” she says. “To do that, I need to finish college first and not give up.”

In efforts to make sure other students don’t give up, Arinzeh does community outreach to groom disadvantaged high school students for science and engineering, many of them minorities.

Students’ respect for Arinzeh isn’t lost on Dr. David Kristol, the department’s associate chairman who was instrumental in hiring her.

“Not only is she a capable scientist, but she works well with people and is a good person at heart,” Kristol says. “The fact she is always smiling makes my day.”

—  By Lydia Lum

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