That set her on a decadelong search for innovative ways to heal bones and knees as well as to grow other tissues. To do that, Anseth, a medical investigator for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and a professor at the University of Colorado, designed polymers that emulate living tissue and form the scaffolding to rebuild damaged knees and broken bones. For bones, Anseth and her team developed special polymers to be placed inside a severe fracture, where they encourage the bone to heal by releasing medications and hormones. Because the process is light-sensitive, it can be turned on and off through the use of ultraviolet light. It's one of several processes that Anseth has developed that have been licensed for use by biotechnology companies.

The pioneering research by Anseth and others in tissue engineering, a relatively new field, offers the hope of starting new models for healing. "I am convinced that in our lifetime we're going to see more clinical therapies that use tissue engineering strategies to at least improve quality of life, if not completely heal us," she says.

ANSETH'S BARRIER-BUSTING research career parallels the rise of tissue engineering, a term that didn't exist a little over a decade ago. The area combines a dizzying number of specialties, including bioengineering, chemical engineering, molecular and cellular biology, biochemistry, and physics.

It requires researchers like Anseth and Rice University's Kyriacos Athanasiou to not only reach across disciplines but to think about problems in new ways within their own areas of expertise.

Athanasiou, whose work has yielded 28 patents and 12 products approved by the Food and Drug Administration, began researching cartilage in 1989. "All of my work in what I would call the early stages of tissue engineering cemented in my mind the view that we can harness the ability of cells to make tissues in vitro," he says, "and then one could go about regenerating tissues that normally could not be regenerated on their own."