The Humans of the Wyss (HOW) series features members of the Wyss community discussing their work, the influences that shape them as scientists, and their collaborations at the Wyss Institute and beyond.
When Luba Perry was first exposed to the field of tissue engineering at a job in industry, she was immediately hooked. Building something from nothing and seeing it flourish in the body was unlike anything she’d ever experienced and is still what makes her happiest – along with her kids. Now, Luba is part of the 3D Organ Engineering Initiative where she works on fabricating vascularized tissues and testing their efficacy, with the hope of creating functional organs for people on the ever-increasing organ transplant list. Learn more about Luba and her work in this month’s Humans of the Wyss.
What are you working on?
I am part of the 3D Organ Engineering Initiative, co-led by Chris Chen and Jennifer Lewis. All of my projects are collaborative between two or three labs, as we also work with Sangeeta Bhatia and members of her lab. I am basically working on engineering various vascularized tissues and organs in the lab and testing their engraftment and functionality in animal models. Engraftment is the process of a successful integration of these tissues within the body so they can become vascularized and fully functional. The main focus of my work is the incorporation of engineered blood vessels within the engineered tissues that would promote their engraftment in the host’s body.
What real-world problem does this solve?
There is a huge donor organ shortage, and the gap between the organs needed and the organs available is constantly increasing. There are simply not enough organs available for transplant. A possible alternative is to build the desired tissue or organ in the lab. We can isolate patient-specific cells and use them together with biomaterials to fabricate a custom-designed tissue to avoid immune rejection after transplantation. These engineered tissues may be implanted at the location of the damaged tissue, or implanted ectopically, meaning in another location. For example, we may implant liver tissue under the skin or inside fat tissue. The existence of the organ tissue-specific cells in the body and their successful engraftment will allow them to perform the functions that the damaged tissue cannot perform. The implant’s location depends on the project and the animal model. Right now, I’m focused on the liver and adipose tissue for reconstructive surgery.
The ultimate goal is to fabricate an entire organ in the lab to replace the damaged organ in the patient, but we are still years away from that. Currently, we are primarily working on tissues and pieces of organs. In the last decade, I have worked on blood vessels, skeletal muscle, liver, and adipose tissue.
What inspired you to get into the field?
After I finished my master’s degree in molecular pharmacology, I was fortunate to work at a gene therapy company called MGVS (now VESSL Therapeutics). There I was exposed to tissue engineering for the first time. I immediately fell in love with this field and with the ability to build something from scratch in the lab and see it flourish post-implantation in the body. I was primarily involved in pre-clinical trials, but also got to work on the clinical trials. I was amazed by the process of translating the technology we were developing in the R&D department to the clinic and seeing our science change people’s lives. My time at MGVS Ltd. made me realize that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I want to build tissue for therapeutics, and I want to do translational research. After two years at the company, I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering.
What excites you most about your work?
The ultimate test for my engineered tissues is their engraftment and survival in vivo. There is nothing that makes me happier or more excited than seeing my tissues functional and vascularized in the animals – except my kids, of course! I also love seeing that they produce human-specific proteins and cytokines. Since we implant human tissue in rodents, it is easy to detect human-specific factors. It is amazing seeing my engineered vessels connected to the host’s vasculature and perfused with host blood.
What are some of the challenges that you face?
There are many challenges in the field and accurately recapitulating the native tissue is very complicated. What we are doing is basically simplifying our engineered tissue in terms of cells and tissue architecture and relying on its additional remodeling in the host’s body.
What attracted you to the Wyss?
As I was looking for a place for my postdoc, I wanted to work in a lab that was performing translational research in the field of tissue engineering. I think it was written in the stars, since this was the exact time that Jennifer Lewis and Chris Chen were establishing the 3D Organ Engineering Initiative at the Wyss. Then, the more I researched about the Wyss, the more I realized that it was everything I was dreaming about. This was where I could fulfill my dreams and move technologies towards clinical applications within tissue fabrication and organ regeneration. I was even more excited when I learned that I would get to work with the Chen, Lewis, and Bhatia labs, which are all incredible and among the leading labs in the world in the field of tissue engineering and biofabrication. My Ph.D. advisor Shulamit Levenberg had nothing but good things to say about the Wyss. So, it was a perfect match.
What is unique about the Wyss and how have these features impacted your work?
During the last 13 years, I have worked in several labs in academia and industry, and I have never met such intelligent, passionate, hardworking, and kind people. The focus on translational research is exceptionally unique, as are the Validation and Institute projects. For the last year, I have been leading a Validation project focused on vascularization of engineered tissues, which has been a unique and one-of-a-kind experience. I am so lucky to work with an incredible team of scientists collaborating from the Chen and Lewis labs including Sebastien Uzel, Daniel Reynolds, Daniel Kent, and Zack Chou. I also get to work with Amanda Graveline and her animal care team and Paul Resnick and Niamh Higgins and the Business Development team. Plus, I’ve been able to work with members of the finance, IP, and HR teams. I’ve gained exposure to every aspect of the project, and everyone has been invaluable to its success.
How have your previous work and personal experiences shaped your approach to your work today?
I became scientifically independent by working in labs where the PIs didn’t do a lot of handholding, starting with my master’s. I began my Ph.D. with a six-month-old baby, so I had to learn how to manage my time and how to be more efficient with no sleep and fewer hours in the lab. Luckily, I have been in labs with amazing people throughout my career, and I have learned something from each of them.
What do you like to do outside of work?
I like to spend my time with my husband and our three kids. We love being outdoors whenever the weather permits. We mostly enjoy hiking, traveling to new places, and going to the beach in the summer. I also love being active and work out at least three times a week.
What is something unique about you that someone wouldn’t know from your résumé?
Someone might guess this from looking at the languages section of my resume, but the United States is the third country I’ve lived in long term. I was born in Ukraine and moved to Israel when I was six, so both Russian and Hebrew are my native languages. My family relocated to Boston in 2018. Now, I think and even dream in three languages. Whenever it gets hard, I remind myself that my parents moved to Israel without knowing one word of Hebrew at a time before the internet. I have no idea how they did it. They are my heroes!
If you had to choose an entirely different career path, what would it be?
If it was up to me, I would be a ballerina. I danced classical ballet for 15 years and dreamed of becoming a ballerina, but that was not going to happen in a family of physicians. If I couldn’t become a prima ballerina, I had to find a different career path.
What does it feel like to be working on cutting-edge technology that has the potential to have a real and significant impact on people’s lives and society?
It feels amazing! I feel incredibly lucky and fortunate to do this work every day. I’m extremely passionate about my work.