A Better Graft: How A Mexican-American Biomedical Researcher Is Making Her Mark

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María Yañez, 30, is in charge of the printer at the Printed Biomaterial Laboratory at the University of Texas at El Paso. That doesn’t sound like much of a responsibility until you realize that the lab’s work largely revolves around the 3D inkjet printer.

“My parents are proud of me,” she told Fox News Latino.

And well they should be. A native of Chihuahua in northern Mexico, Yañez came to UTEP for her doctoral studies and has been a researcher in the Printed Biomaterial Lab for more than three years now. She specializes in creating biomedical tissue—for skin grafts, for instance—having mastered the small, little larger than a cereal box, 3D inkjet printer that has been modified to fit the lab’s needs.

“We use ‘bio-paper’ and print on it with ‘bio-ink,’” Yañez explained, confusing the heck out of this reporter.

“It’s special ink,” she said, laughing, “it has qualities based on the physical nature of the cells we’re trying to bond with. We use Photoshop to create different figures — proteins that you can find in your body, say.”

None of which explains why this is important.

The materials currently used commercially for skin grafts often have to be replaced five, six or seven times before they mesh appropriately with surrounding tissue.

“We have looked for better materials for skin grafts, something that integrates better with its host than materials currently in use,” the  German biomedical engineer and head of the Printed Biomaterial Laboratory, Thomas Boland, told Fox News Latino.

When she was starting at the lab, Yañez worked for a semester at the emergency room at the Providence Memorial Hospital here in El Paso, where she interviewed people who needed a graft – people with chronic wounds like diabetic ulcers, and most of them elderly.

But she remembered, “No material worked well,” and she realized then that "materials really can affect people’s health.”

Now Yañez is the chief instrument in Boland's search for better ways to build tissue. “She’s a team leader, a careful worker, a tremendous analyst,” he said of her. “And she does things with the 3D printer that I cannot do myself.”

He said that there are maybe 50 or 60 groups worldwide working on biomedical tissue created on 3D printers, which means that there are literally only a small number of people who can do what Yañez can.

In the Printed Biomaterial Lab, Yañez created what she describes as “top and bottom layers of collagen and in between … a printed hollow structure” that contains a “layer of proteins and micro-vessels that allow the graft to remain on the wound longer.”

They tested the material on mice and got “pretty good results,” Yañez said. The next step, experimentally, is “an animal closer genetically to humans, like pigs.”

Yanez expects that her next challenge will be constructing cartilage replacement tissue, maybe even in her own research lab—an occurrence that Boland both fears and desires.

“She is ready,” he said, asked about the possibility that Yañez will find funding to launch her own research. “I don’t want to lose her, but I know I will… Maybe next year.”