Sharon Gerecht: Engineering Stem Cells for Blood Vessel Growth

September 21, 2021 | Michaela Kane

New faculty member Sharon Gerecht uses biomaterials and other engineered environments to help stem cells evolve into vascular cells, the foundation of blood vessels

Sharon Gerecht

Sharon Gerecht

Sharon Gerecht will join Duke University’s Department of Biomedical Engineering as a professor of biomedical engineering beginning January 1, 2022. An internationally recognized pioneer in stem cell and vascular biology, Gerecht focuses on engineering and controlling the growth of blood vessels for applications ranging from wound healing to cancer therapies. Gerecht will contribute her expertise to Duke BME’s ever-growing biomaterials community. 

Prior to joining Duke, Gerecht was the Edward J. Schaeffer Professor in Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, where she served as the director of the Institute for NanoBio Technology. Gerecht is an elected fellow of the America Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences and the National Academy of Inventors. She is also an elected member of the National Academy of Medicine and has authored more than 150 papers, book chapters and patents in her field.

With research at the intersection of stem cell biology and engineering, Gerecht designed and engineered biomaterials that could guide the development of stem cells as they evolve into vascular cells.

Gerecht will continue this work in her new role at Duke, where she is looking forward to developing new collaborations with researchers both in biomedical engineering and across the university.

“Not only is Duke's biomedical engineering department one of the top in the country, but the proximity to the excellent Duke University Medical Center also makes it easier for me to work with researchers and physicians across the school,” says Gerecht. “I was also very excited by the new opportunities that will be supported through the new Duke Science and Technology initiative.”

Researchers have long been exploring how best to trigger stem cells to grow into specific cell types, like neurons, muscle cells or kidney cells. When it comes to vascular cellsthe cells that make up blood vesselsGerecht has pushed this quest forward by delving into the relationship between stem cells and their surrounding microenvironments. This not only involves studying the composition of the matrix surrounding the cells, but also exploring how the cells respond to mechanical forces, like pressure, and tracking the amount of oxygen in the area around the cells.

“Our blood vessels deliver oxygen to almost all of the organs in our body, so any injury or defect in development can impair their function,” says Gerecht. “My lab uses biomaterials and microfluidics to create systems that mimic the natural environment where these cells would grow so we can look at how specific factors can impact their function. If we can understand that, then we can hopefully explore what we need to do to control blood vessel growth.”

This work, Gerecht says, could be important for uses like wound healing, where the body could be triggered to naturally create new blood vessels that would support the formation of new, healthy tissue. The opposite approach could also be useful for studying potential cancer therapeutics, as researchers could determine how to prevent blood vessels from growing and supporting a tumor.

In addition to this work, Gerecht is also pursuing a research project that extends out of the lab—and beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. 

“My lab is working with TRISH/NASA to study how space radiation impacts the human vascular system,” she says. “The goal is to explore how the human body would be affected when you’re traveling through space for a prolonged period of time to a planet like Mars. A side impact from this project that I would love to eventually explore would be to study how radiation as a therapy specifically impacts the healthy vascular system.”

Beyond her research, Gerecht is also looking forward to the opportunities to mentor and support students through her new role at Duke.

“My lab’s work is at the intersection of many fields, so in addition to biomedical engineering students, I’m excited to work with students and postdocs from developmental and cell biology, cancer biology and materials sciences,” says Gerecht. “Beyond working with students with diverse research interests, I also want to create new research opportunities for students from underrepresented groups, both in my lab and across Duke as an institution. There is no shortage of opportunities for me at Duke, and I can’t wait to get started.”