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Bone machine

Petro-Canada Young Innovator Award

By Kelly Foss

Dr. Kristin (Kris) Poduska, an assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Physical Oceanography, will receive $25,000 as the 2009 recipient of the Petro-Canada Young Innovator Award.

Originally from the United States, Dr. Poduska completed her undergraduate studies at Carleton College in Minnesota and her PhD at Cornell University, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Toronto. Her research involves synthesizing materials and then determining how the way materials are synthesized can affect their properties.

She was singled out for this award in particular because of her work on properties of biological materials, or materials that can, in principle, go into a body.

“For example, if you have a broken bone, you want to have that bone heal as rapidly as possible,” she explained. “We don’t make a new bone, but what we are trying to do is make something that would go in the body to help trigger the bone to grow.

“Basically we want to put a coating on the surface of the bone – a composite mixture of calcium phosphate (the hard part of bone) and collagen (the protein part) that would encourage cells to grow on it. It’s a great idea in principle. But the next step is to start trying to grow cells on our coatings and that’s what this award will allow us to start doing.”

Dr. Poduska is optimistic that this process will work, as she and colleagues Dr. Erika Merschrod of the Department of Chemistry and Dr. Robert Gendron of the Faculty of Medicine have already started growing cells on the collagen underlayer that would support the composite coating.

“It’s going really well and the cells are doing some very interesting things that we don’t understand yet,” she said. “There have also been a number of studies where people have looked at how cells stick to surfaces and we are getting a better understanding of the many things that affect how a cell decides to attach, grow, differentiate and regenerate. But you also have to be careful because you want the right kind of growth. For example, you want bone to grow. You don’t want scar tissue.”

Dr. Poduska says the coating would likely be used on implants such as bone pins or joint replacements.

“Any place where you would want to trigger the bone to grow, you would put the coating on the implant and let it do the work,” she said. “Coating an implant could help the body incorporate it more naturally and cut down on infections.
“We can put the coating on metals very easily, but we’ve also made a scaffold, a flexible material, that we can put on any kind of substrate we want,” she added. “That gives us more flexibility in cases where there isn’t an implant. We want to see if the scaffold can be used on its own in and see if that improves the growth.”

The Petro-Canada Young Innovator Awards Program was created to recognize and help support the work of outstanding young faculty researcher at Canadian universities, colleges and major research institutes, particularly those whose research has the potential to be of significance to society at large. Established at more than 20 institutes across Canada, the award offers financial support and public acknowledgement to help promising researchers continue their careers in Canada.

“It’s always nice to get personal recognition, and for someone to tell you you’re doing something interesting,” said Dr. Poduska. “It’s also good for the department and for the university as a whole. This funding will certainly help pay for students to continue this work and push the collaboration forward with my colleagues.”