Extracellular matrix is the complex substance outside of cells that provides structural support to living tissues. Dr. Robert Vernon is committed to understanding how extracellular matrix influences the behavior of cells in health and disease and to using extracellular matrix to construct functional replacements for diseased, injured, or lost tissues. His major areas of research include:
1. Projects to develop engineered replacements for blood vessels (e.g., coronary arteries and major arteries of the limbs), ligaments, tendons, and skin. These replacements are comprised of cells grown in contact with supportive scaffolds made from natural extracellular matrix molecules (e.g., collagen). The collagen scaffolds are patterned to promote cell alignment that is characteristic of native tissues. In comparison to scaffolds made of artificial materials (e.g., plastics), scaffolds made of natural extracellular matrix are less toxic, integrate more effectively with recipient tissues, and are better at supporting cell survival and growth.
2. A project to develop an engineered replacement for the endocrine pancreas for treatment of diabetes. Specialized extracellular matrices are used in this project to provide mechanical support to transplanted pancreatic islets and to promote the survival, vascularization, and acceptance of the islets by the recipient.
3. A collaboration with researchers at the University of Washington to understand how age-related changes in the structure and composition of connective tissue extracellular matrix contribute to tumor development and compromised wound healing in aged individuals.
4. Ongoing work to develop culture systems in vitro (i.e., outside of the body) to simulate the natural environment found in connective tissues within the body. These culture systems consist of 3-dimensional extracellular matrix gels populated with specific tissue explants or isolated cell types. The culture systems can be used to study how blood vessels and tumor cells grow and how immune cells interact with one another.