Jeroen Rouwkema develops alternatives for donor tissue

Jeroen Rouwkema is associate professor and principal researcher of the Vascularization Lab at the University of Twente. This research group is part of the university's Technical Medical Centre, which opened in 2019. In 2016, Rouwkema received an ERC Advanced Grant of two million euros for his project 'VascArbor', in which he wants to steer the development and organisation of blood vessels in cultured tissues.

With his research, the scientist wants to contribute to a successful connection of blood vessels from lab-grown tissue to the patient's blood vessels. "Cultivated tissues have the potential to replace donor tissue in the future, but the clinical application is still limited at the moment", says Rouwkema. "Cultivated tissues often do not contain a blood vessel network and are therefore difficult to integrate into the body. We want to change this. With the blood vessel network, we can promote the integration of the cultured tissue and improve the chances of survival after implantation. If the blood vessels are successfully connected, the cultured tissue will be supplied with blood flow and thus a better supply of nutrients and oxygen.

Cultivated tissues often do not contain a blood vessel network and are therefore difficult to integrate into the body. We want to change thatDr. Jeroen Rouwkema

Within Rouwkema's project, both tissue building blocks and bioprinting are used to produce complex 3D heart muscle tissues, containing an organised blood vessel network. The organisation of the blood vessels is controlled by fluid flows in the cultured tissue. In addition, various growth factors in specific locations are incorporated into the tissue in order to gain even better control over the organisation of blood vessels.

Research and education

Within Rouwkema's research group, both master and bachelor students actively participate in projects. "I hear from them that they find this particularly valuable because of the great diversity of technologies used within our research area. Students also add new knowledge themselves, as we see for example in a recent collaboration with the University of Wageningen. There they have specific knowledge in Computational Modelling, which can be of great value to our research."

The associate professor also considers it important that students learn that skills are more important than knowledge. "Our field of expertise is too broad to be able to learn everything. That's why it's more important for students to have the skills to make connections, to apply knowledge and to be able to work in a multi-disciplinary way. They must therefore be able to be both specialists and generalists and be able to work together in this way within a project."

Curiosity and the desire to learn are the most important qualities for his students, according to Rouwkema. "We try to encourage them to look for original solutions. There are so many different ways of solving problems within our field of research. Students' fresh perspectives can be invaluable."  

About Jeroen Rouwkema

Jeroen Rouwkema is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Biomechanical Engineering at the University of Twente. Jeroen received his doctoral degree from the University of Twente under the supervision of prof. Clemens van Blitterswijk. Prior to this, he worked 6 months in the lab of prof. Robert (Bob) Langer at MIT, USA. Between 2014 and 2015 he was also appointed as a Visiting Researcher at Harvard Medical School, USA, in the group of Prof. Ali Khademhosseini.

His expertise and interests are tissue engineering, vascularization, and the role that biomechanical signals play in these processes. He has published in multiple high-impact journals, including Nature Biotechnology (IF 41.5), Advanced Materials (IF 19.0), TRENDS in Biotechnology (4x, IF 12.0), and PNAS (2x, IF 9.7). He has directed approximately € 3 million in research funding.

Jeroen has received a VENI fellowship from NWO, as well as an International Outgoing Fellowship, which is part of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions of the European Commission. In 2017 he received a European Research Council (ERC) Advanced grant and in 2019 an ERC Proof of Concept grant. In 2017 he also received the TERMIS EU Robert Brown Early Career Principal Investigator Award.

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