George Eng radiates energy as he guides a visitor around the lab on the 12th floor of Vanderbilt Clinic. A fifth-year student in the MD/PhD program, he heads straight for his bench. His excitement is palpable as he discusses what he does in the lab.
“I do cardiac tissue engineering,” he says, picking up a petri dish from a collection with carbon electrodes attached to them. “I take human embryonic stem cells and turn them into cardiomyocytes, and make heart tissue out of them.”
The ultimate goal, he says, is to make “a cardiac patch, like a Band-Aid for the heart,” which could replace an area of the heart damaged during a heart attack. Eng does his research in conjunction with Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, PhD, professor of biomedical engineering at Columbia.
Eng uses electrical stimulation to make “a better cardiac construct,” he explains. “In other words, a better piece of cardiac tissue. … If you stimulate the cells, they’ll remember the pacing that you applied and can be 'tuned' to the patient’s heart rate,” he explains.
A graduate of MIT, Eng says he was thrilled to return to his native New York City – he’s originally from Bay Ridge, in Brooklyn – for the MD/PhD program at Columbia.
“I’ve always wanted to be a physician and help people,” he says. “When I went to MIT, I was surprised how much I really liked research. The MD/PhD program was a perfect way of doing both: having the clinical knowledge to inform the problems you want to work on, and the PhD program gives you the tools you need to actually address them.”
His clinical experience – including being part of heart transplant teams – has already impacted another of his research projects: making blood vessels in vitro.
“If I didn’t have the medical knowledge of how to surgically put blood vessels into the body … I wouldn’t be as intelligent in my design. Instead, I can ask. ‘If I were a surgeon, what would be the most important aspects to consider?’ ”
“It’s not just science for its own sake,” Eng says. “It’s nice to have a tangible goal.”
Photo by Amelia Panico
-- Mary Schiller