Joel D. Boerckel, Ph.D.

Joel Boerckel PhD

Dr. Joel D. Boerckel is an Assistant Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, with joint appointments in the Departments of Orthopaedic Surgery and Bioengineering. His lab seeks to understand how mechanical cues influence embryonic development and to apply these principles to regenerative medicine.

The Boerckel lab’s philosophy is that, if one wants to build a tissue, they should look to how the embryo builds that tissue. Thus the lab seeks to recapitulate embryonic development for tissue regeneration. The Boerckel lab’s work focuses on the mechanosensitive transcriptional regulators Yes-associated protein (YAP) and Transcriptional co-activator with PDZ motif (TAZ) in mechanotransduction, morphogenesis, growth, adaptation, and repair. In addition, his lab seeks to develop new tissue engineering strategies for challenging injuries. The Boerckel Lab uses a combination of engineered matrices and bioreactors to study mechanisms of cell mechanotransduction, genetic mouse models to study development and disease, and mouse and rat models to study repair and regeneration.

Dr. Boerckel was born in Jerusalem, Israel, and spent his childhood in La Paz, Bolivia, before moving to Illinois, USA, at age 12. He received his B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Grove City College in 2006, and his M.S. and Ph.D. degrees, also in Mechanical Engineering, from the Georgia Institute of Technology in 2009 and 2011, respectively. On entering graduate school, he was intent to work on biomechanics and swore never to work on cell biology or signaling. However, in his doctoral work, with Robert Guldberg at Georgia Tech, he discovered that mechanical forces when applied during tissue regeneration can dramatically influence neovascularization, i.e., the formation of new blood vessels. This led him to an interest in understanding how blood vessels form, and he pursued postdoctoral training in endothelial cell biology with Paul DiCorleto at the Cleveland Clinic. There, as a Ruth L. Kirschstein NRSA Fellow, he uncovered a non-canonical role for the MAP kinase phosphatase, MKP-1, in angiogenesis. By serendipity, he also made a new mouse model that happened to have an embryonic-lethal phenotype. Though he has yet to finish and publish this work, this observation led to hours on a microscope looking at embryos. He was immediately hooked, and knew he had to spend the rest of his career studying development.

Coincidentally, as Dr. Boerckel was preparing to transition to a faculty position, a friend from church and also a postdoc at CCF, Munir Tanas (now Assistant Professor of Pathology at the University of Iowa), discovered that genetic defects in the Hippo pathway effectors, TAZ and YAP, cause the vascular sarcoma EHE. One evening over Belgian beers, Tanas mentioned: “This pathway does everything you’re interested in.” In that moment, Boerckel abandoned every idea he’d proposed in his chalk talks to pursue these fascinating proteins.

Dr. Boerckel set up his lab at the University of Notre Dame in 2014 to study YAP/TAZ signaling in bone and blood vessel development, and in 2017 he moved the lab to the McKay Orthopaedic Research Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania. His lab was the first to identify the roles of YAP and TAZ in bone development (Kegelman+ 2018).  They discovered a mechanism in endothelial cells by which YAP and TAZ are not only activated by the cytoskeleton, but also drive a transcriptional program that feeds back to modulate cytoskeletal tension to enable persistent cell motility (Mason+ 2019). Just this month, they published a paper in Science Translational Medicine which shows how in vivo mechanical forces are required to mimic embryonic development for regeneration of large bone defects (McDermott+ 2019). His laboratory is supported by the American Heart Association, the Penn Center for Musculoskeletal Disorders, and the Center for Engineering Mechanobiology at Penn, and was recently awarded two R01 grants from the National Institutes of Health to continue this work on mechanobiology of bone development and development-inspired tissue engineering.

Dr. Boerckel is passionate about trainee career development and is looking for PhD students, postdocs, and other researchers looking to chase interesting questions in a dynamic and supportive environment. You can find more about the lab at http://www.med.upenn.edu/orl/boerckellab/, hear about his work in person at the 48th International Musculoskeletal Biology Workshop in July where Dr. Boerckel will be presenting thanks to an Alice L. Jee Young Investigator Award, and follow Dr. Boerckel on Twitter at @jboerckel.

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