A scientist to the
Rice bioengineer Kurt
Kasper wins Young Investigator Award
BY MIKE WILLIAMS
Rice News staff
Rice bioengineer Kurt Kasper is the winner of this year’s prestigious
Young Investigator Award, given by the Tissue Engineering and
Regenerative Medicine International Society of North America (TERMIS-NA).
The truth is, Kasper’s investigations began when he was much younger.
“I’ve been interested in bioengineering since I was in elementary
school,” Kasper said. “I used to watch ‘NOVA’ (the PBS science
series) all the time, and there was a particular show where they were talking
about prosthetics, showing children and wounded military personnel who were
struggling with what were then state-of-the-art prosthetics.
“That sparked my interest in applying engineering principles to
meet clinical needs. I thought it would be a way to apply my interests, as
basic as they were at the time, into finding a career path that would bridge
engineering and medicine without having to go into medical practice.”
Kasper will receive the award at the society’s annual conference and
exposition in Houston Dec. 11-14, where he will present a paper related to his
work on regenerating bone, cartilage and other tissues.
The award is presented to “an individual who has demonstrated
outstanding achievements within the tissue engineering and regenerative
medicine field,” according to the society. Candidates must be within 10
years of receipt of their degree and not be tenured when nominated.
It’s appropriate that members of the military stand to benefit from
Kasper’s work. In 2008 a Department
of Defense grant funded a program in which Kasper is helping
figure out how to grow large volumes of bone tissue for craniofacial
reconstruction. That program was led by Antonios Mikos, Rice’s Louis
Calder Professor of Bioengineering and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering,
and Mark Wong, chairman of the Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery at
the University of Texas Dental Branch in Houston.
Wong and his clinical colleagues have already treated three patients
with a novel combination of off-the-shelf products to temporarily fill spaces
left by the removal of benign tumors in their jawbones.
“Surgeons would typically use a polymethylmethacrylate
or Plexiglas bone cement to fill the space as a temporary implant,” Kasper
said. The cement would serve as a placeholder to keep the soft tissue from
collapsing while the patient awaited a permanent solution, like a bone graft.
Because those materials are smooth, they weren’t providing a solid
anchor for soft tissue, so the solution was to mix in another component that
roughens the surface of the implants. “We found it’s effective in
increasing soft-tissue infiltration,” he said.
Successful treatment of the civilian patients has led to approval by
the Institutional Review Board of the University of Texas Health Science Center
at Houston to initiate a formal prospective clinical study of the technique,
Kasper said. “Through our interactions with military surgeons, we know
they’re champing at the bit for a way to address devastating craniofacial bone loss
from the explosive injuries a lot of U.S. military personnel are facing in the
current engagements in the Middle East,” he said.
Kasper came to Rice after earning his undergraduate degree at Case
Western Reserve and joined the Mikos lab as a graduate student. He remained as
a postdoctoral research associate until 2008, when he was named a faculty
fellow in bioengineering.
“The award reflects clearly the mentorship I received from Tony
Mikos (this year’s TERMIS-NA president) and the tremendous efforts we’ve had
from our students over the years, and through our collaborations with
clinicians across the street and other investigators around the world,”
The founding of Rice’s BioScience
Research Collaborative (BRC) certainly played a role in his decision to
“I can think of no better place to do the type of research we do
than right here,” he said.