UI professor to research collaborative regenerative medicine in Ireland

James Ankrum, a University of Iowa biomedical engineering professor, will bring his expertise in cell biology to a world-renowned research lab in Dublin.


Ryan Hansen, News Reporter

A University of Iowa professor will travel to Ireland for a collaborative effort aimed at advancing research in the field of regenerative medicine.

James Ankrum, UI associate professor of biomedical engineering, was one of over 400 professionals, artists, and scholars who received the competitive Fulbright Scholar Award to fund his journey.

He said his work with the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland will be an ongoing effort that combines its renowned tissue engineering program with his cell biology expertise to tailor the cells of the body for ailment therapy and relief.

“This isn’t just a six-month [thing], where we work together for a semester,” Ankrum said. “The plan is that we’re going to lay the foundation for a collaborative project that will last for years to come. That’s really the goal is to put in the work so that we’ve got a great base foundation.”

Ankrum’s trip, he said, looks to research replicating the body’s natural signals to help those with chronic wounds.

Chronic wounds are often seen in individuals with diabetes, as well as military personnel, who are facing increasingly complex injuries from big explosions.

“If we can learn how the cells in the body communicate with each other to heal rather than scar,” Ankrum said. “We can actually mimic those properties, those signals, those communication tactics and employ them as medicines.”

Ankrum’s research with his Irish colleagues will continue to further their research as well.

He said the Royal College of Surgeons combines gene therapies with biomaterial scaffolding, the surface where cells are encouraged to grow.

The scaffolding has gene therapies embedded in the scaffolding and when cells migrate onto the surface of that scaffolding, the cells begin to receive the signals to reproduce.

Ankrum’s research allows larger-scale research into how to maximize the therapeutic aspect of the structure, Ankrum said.

The ultimate goal of research on regenerative medicine, Ankrum said, is to help reverse the effects of disease and restore the functionality of tissues that have devolved.

“With heart disease, for example, tissues become diseased and are failing and no longer function as they once did,” Ankrum said. “Can we actually turn back the clock by understanding, ‘What are the signals and cues and necessary players to restore true function?’”

Kristan Worthington, member of the Member Institute for Vision Research and UI assistant professor of biomedical engineering, focuses her research on regenerative medicine within the human retina, the part of the eye responsible for sensing light.

“Lots of older people experience vision loss that is, at this point, irreversible,” Worthington said. “That really impacts someone’s quality of life in a very big way.”

Worthington’s latter research focus mirrors Ankrum’s focus in Ireland with the biometric scaffolding.

She said regenerative research is important because researchers are still far away from being able to mimic the human body’s ability to stimulate tissue.

“For me, it’s a lifelong pursuit of understanding and being able to modulate the human body to increase quality of life and improve the experience of humans all over the world,” Worthington said.

Ankrum said regenerative medicine helps target individual suffering and alleviate it.

“Being able to offer [veterans] something that isn’t just, ‘Here’s pain medication,’ but something that can actually restore their body to what it once was before they were deployed, that plays into it,” Ankrum said.