Karen Burg, 35
Engineered a minimally invasive process to rebuild tissue for breast cancer survivors
Karen Burg wants to heal the minds and bodies of women who survive breast cancer. The psychological and physical trauma of lumpectomies and mastectomies is bad enough, but many women also undergo reconstructive breast surgery, enduring general anesthesia and risking infection from incisions, implants, and stitches. At the tissue-engineering lab Burg runs at Clemson University, the associate professor of bioengineering has developed a minimally invasive process for rebuilding breast tissue. Burg has designed tiny, degradable synthetic beads on which a patient’s own fat cells can be cultivated. A degradable gel is added to help temporarily bind the beads on which a patients’ own fat cells, which are injected into the damaged tissue. In laboratory tests, injected cells reproduced and meshed with native cells, and the beads decomposed as the new tissue grew to support itself. Burg hopes to begin human trials of the method soon: the National Institutes of Health may provide an infusion of nearly $3 million for the effort. Burg is also assessing ways to apply her tissue-engineering techniques to the repair of ruptured spinal discs.