Associate Professor Jelena Rnjak-Kovacina
Associate Professor

Associate Professor Jelena Rnjak-Kovacina

Education & Training

Postdoctoral scholar- Department of Biomedical Engineering, Tufts University, Boston, USA, 2011-2013

Research area: Development of novel silk-based biomaterials for tissue engineering and regenerative medicine, Supervisor: Prof David Kaplan

Doctor of Philosophy, School of Molecular Bioscience, University of Sydney, 2011

Research area: Development of human elastin-based dermal substitutes for the treatment of severe burn injuries, Supervisor: Prof Antony Weiss

Bachelor of Science (Molecular Biology & Genetics) (Honours I) (University Medal),University of Sydney, 2007

Grad Sch: Biomedical Eng

Dr Jelena Rnjak-Kovacina is an Associate Professor and Heart Foundation Future Leader Fellow at the Graduate School of Biomedical Engineering. She completed her doctoral degree in Prof Anthony Weiss' lab at the University of Sydney and postdoctoral training in Prof David Kaplan’s group at Tufts University in Boston prior to joining UNSW in 2014. Her research interests are at the interface of biology and engineering, focusing on the development of novel, biomimetic biomaterial platforms with tuneable physical and biological features that direct cellular behaviour and function. She develops biomaterial platforms to study the effects of physical and biological cues on the vascularisation of bioengineered tissues and the biological mechanisms underpinning this process, as well novel functional cardiovascular implant devices, including vascular grafts and cardiac patches.




Samuels Building F25 Level 5, Room 507 UNSW Sydney NSW 2052 AUSTRALIA
  • Journal articles | 2022
    Man K; Joukhdar H; Manz XD; Brunet MY; Jiang LH; Rnjak-Kovacina J; Yang XB, 2022, 'Bone tissue engineering using 3D silk scaffolds and human dental pulp stromal cells epigenetic reprogrammed with the selective histone deacetylase inhibitor MI192', Cell and Tissue Research, vol. 388, pp. 565 - 581,
    Journal articles | 2022
    Romanazzo S; Kopecky C; Jiang S; Doshi R; Mukund V; Srivastava P; Rnjak-Kovacina J; Kelly K; Kilian KA, 2022, 'Biomaterials directed activation of a cryostable therapeutic secretome in induced pluripotent stem cell derived mesenchymal stromal cells', Journal of Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine, vol. 16, pp. 1008 - 1018,
    Journal articles | 2021
    Joukhdar H; Seifert A; Jüngst T; Groll J; Lord MS; Rnjak-Kovacina J, 2021, 'Ice Templating Soft Matter: Fundamental Principles and Fabrication Approaches to Tailor Pore Structure and Morphology and Their Biomedical Applications', Advanced Materials, vol. 33,
    Journal articles | 2021
    Monfared M; Mawad D; Rnjak-Kovacina J; Stenzel MH, 2021, '3D bioprinting of dual-crosslinked nanocellulose hydrogels for tissue engineering applications', Journal of Materials Chemistry B, vol. 9, pp. 6163 - 6175,
    Journal articles | 2020
    Atienza-Roca P; Kieser DC; Cui X; Bathish B; Ramaswamy Y; Hooper GJ; Clarkson AN; Rnjak-Kovacina J; Martens PJ; Wise LM; Woodfield TBF; Lim KS, 2020, 'Visible light mediated PVA-tyramine hydrogels for covalent incorporation and tailorable release of functional growth factors', Biomaterials Science, vol. 8, pp. 5005 - 5019,
    Journal articles | 2020
    Eslami M; Zeglio E; Alosaimi G; Yan Y; Ruprai H; Macmillan A; Seidel J; Lauto A; Joukhdar H; Rnjak-Kovacina J; Mawad D, 2020, 'A One Step Procedure toward Conductive Suspensions of Liposome-Polyaniline Complexes', Macromolecular Bioscience, vol. 20,
    Journal articles | 2016
    Roberts JJ; Farrugia BL; Green RA; Rnjak-Kovacina J; Martens PJ, 2016, 'In situ formation of poly(vinyl alcohol)–heparin hydrogels for mild encapsulation and prolonged release of basic fibroblast growth factor and vascular endothelial growth factor', Journal of Tissue Engineering, vol. 7, pp. 2041731416677132,
    Journal articles | 2015
    Chen Y; Lin Y; Davis KM; Wang Q; Rnjak-Kovacina J; Li C; Isberg RR; Kumamoto CA; Mecsas J; Kaplan DL, 2015, 'Robust bioengineered 3D functional human intestinal epithelium', Scientific Reports, vol. 5,
    Journal articles | 2015
    Ghezzi CE; Rnjak-Kovacina J; Kaplan DL, 2015, 'Corneal Tissue Engineering: Recent Advances and Future Perspectives', Tissue Engineering - Part B: Reviews, vol. 21, pp. 278 - 287,
    Journal articles | 2015
    Lord MS; Farrugia BL; Rnjak-Kovacina J; Whitelock JM, 2015, 'Current serological possibilities for the diagnosis of arthritis with special focus on proteins and proteoglycans from the extracellular matrix', Expert Review of Molecular Diagnostics, vol. 15, pp. 77 - 95,
    Journal articles | 2015
    Rnjak-Kovacina J; Desrochers TM; Burke KA; Kaplan DL, 2015, 'The effect of sterilization on silk fibroin biomaterial properties', Macromolecular Bioscience, vol. 15, pp. 861 - 874,
    Journal articles | 2015
    Zhang W; Wray LS; Rnjak-Kovacina J; Xu L; Zou D; Wang S; Zhang M; Dong J; Li G; Kaplan DL; Jiang X, 2015, 'Vascularization of hollow channel-modified porous silk scaffolds with endothelial cells for tissue regeneration', Biomaterials, vol. 56, pp. 68 - 77,
    Journal articles | 2014
    McNamara SL; Rnjak-Kovacina J; Lo TJ; Kaplan DL; Schmidt DF, 2014, 'Silk as a biocohesive sacrificial binder in the fabrication of hydroxyapatite load bearing scaffolds', Biomaterials,
    Journal articles | 2014
    McNamara SL; Rnjak-Kovacina J; Schmidt DF; Lo TJ; Kaplan DL, 2014, 'Silk as a biocohesive sacrificial binder in the fabrication of hydroxyapatite load bearing scaffolds', Biomaterials, vol. 35, pp. 6941 - 6953,
    Journal articles | 2014
    Partlow BP; Hanna CW; Rnjak-Kovacina J; Moreau JE; Applegate MB; Burke KA; Marelli B; Mitropoulos AN; Omenetto FG; Kaplan DL, 2014, 'Highly tunable elastomeric silk biomaterials', Advanced Functional Materials, vol. 24, pp. 4615 - 4624,
    Journal articles | 2014
    Rnjak-Kovacina J; Wray LS; Golinski JM; Kaplan DL, 2014, 'Arrayed hollow channels in silk-based scaffolds provide functional outcomes for engineering critically sized tissue constructs', Advanced Functional Materials, vol. 24, pp. 2188 - 2196,
    Journal articles | 2014
    Wise SG; Yeo GC; Hiob MA; Rnjak-Kovacina J; Kaplan DL; Ng MKC; Weiss AS, 2014, 'Tropoelastin: A versatile, bioactive assembly module', Acta Biomaterialia, vol. 10, pp. 1532 - 1541,
    Journal articles | 2014
    Wu J; Funderburgh JL; Rnjak-Kovacina J; Kaplan DL; Du Y; Funderburgh ML, 2014, 'Corneal stromal bioequivalents secreted on patterned silk substrates', Biomaterials,
    Journal articles | 2014
    Wu J; Rnjak-Kovacina J; Du Y; Funderburgh ML; Kaplan DL; Funderburgh JL, 2014, 'Corneal stromal bioequivalents secreted on patterned silk substrates', Biomaterials, vol. 35, pp. 3744 - 3755,
    Journal articles | 2013
    Ghezzi CE; Rnjak-Kovacina J; Weiss AS; Kaplan DL, 2013, 'Multifunctional silk-tropoelastin biomaterial systems', Israel Journal of Chemistry, vol. 53, pp. 777 - 786,
    Journal articles | 2013
    Reddel CJ; Cultrone D; Rnjak-Kovacina J; Weiss AS; Burgess JK, 2013, 'Tropoelastin modulates TGF-β1-induced expression of VEGF and CTGF in airway smooth muscle cells', Matrix Biology, vol. 32, pp. 407 - 413,
    Journal articles | 2013
    Seib FP; Jones GT; Rnjak-Kovacina J; Lin Y; Kaplan DL, 2013, 'pH-Dependent Anticancer Drug Release from Silk Nanoparticles', Advanced Healthcare Materials, vol. 2, pp. 1606 - 1611,
    Journal articles | 2012
    Wray LS; Rnjak-Kovacina J; Mandal BB; Schmidt DF; Gil ES; Kaplan DL, 2012, 'A silk-based scaffold platform with tunable architecture for engineering critically-sized tissue constructs', Biomaterials, vol. 33, pp. 9214 - 9224,
    Journal articles | 2010
    Almine JF; Bax DV; Mithieux SM; Smith LN; Rnjak J; Waterhouse A; Wise SG; Weiss AS, 2010, 'Elastin-based materials', Chemical Society Reviews, vol. 39, pp. 3371 - 3379,
    Journal articles | 2010
    Nivison-Smith L; Rnjak J; Weiss AS, 2010, 'Synthetic human elastin microfibers: Stable cross-linked tropoelastin and cell interactive constructs for tissue engineering applications', Acta Biomaterialia, vol. 6, pp. 354 - 359,

  •  NSW Cardiovascular Research Capacity Program EMCR Grant (lead CI)- ‘Novel strategy for chronic wound healing’ (2022-2024)
  • ARC Future Fellowship (CI-A) - ‘Engineering biomaterials that actively promote blood vessel growth’ (06/2022-2025)
  • NSW Health/Cardiovascular Research Capacity Program - Investigator Development Grants (lead CI), ‘Engineering vascular microenvironments on silk biomaterials for advanced medical implants’, 2020
  • Australia-Germany Joint Research Cooperation Scheme (DAAD) (lead CI), ‘Application of advanced scaffold fabrication technologies toward functional cardiac patches’, 2020-2021
  • ARC Linkage Project (co-CI), ‘Engineering a physiologically-relevant blood vessel in vitro’, 2019-2022
  • Innovative Manufacturing CRC (co-CI), ‘Engineering an advanced, high value bioreactor system for research and clinical applications’, 2019-2022
  • HRC Project Grant (PI), ‘Smart delivery of growth factors for treating osteonecrosis of the femoral head’, 2021-2022
  • HRC Sir Charles Hercules Health Research Fellowship (AI), ‘HRC Sir Charles Hercus Health Research Fellowship’, 2020-2022
  • MARSDEN Fast start (PI), ‘Harnessing macromolecular chemistry to mimic vascular developmental biology’, 2020-2021
  • NHMRC Project Grant (co-CI), ‘New Synthetic Conduits for Arterial Revascularisation’ 2019-2021, Marshall and Warren Award for the most innovative and potentially transformative project grant
  • Diabetes Australia (co-CI), ‘Bioengineered growth factor binding scaffolds for improved diabetic wound healing’, 2019
  • Heart Foundation Future Leader Fellowship (lead CI), ‘Biomaterial-directed vascularisation of bioengineered cardiac patches’, 2018-2022
  • ARC Discovery Project (DP150104242) (lead CI), ‘Novel biomimetic vascular biomaterials using extracellular matrix molecules’, 2015-2019;
  • UNSW Engineering Faculty Major Research Equipment Funding (lead CI), 'Medical device characterisation', 2018
  • UNSW Infrastructure Fund (AI), ‘Dynamic Mechanical Testing-ElectroForce’, 2017
  • UNSW Infrastructure Fund (AI), ‘High throughput Flash Purification System for Small Molecule and Polymer Separations’, 2017;
  • UNSW Network Lab Project (AI), ‘Molecular Surface Interaction Network Lab’, 2017-2018;
  • UNSW Faculty of Engineering Startup award (lead CI), 2016-2017;
  • UNSW Career Advancement Fund (lead CI), 2017-2018;
  • UNSW Minor Equipment Grants (lead CI), 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017;
  • UNSW Faculty of Engineering Early Career Researcher Award (lead CI), 2014.


  • UNSW Faculty of Engineering Leadership Award, 2021
  • NSW Early Career Researcher of the Year (Physical Sciences), NSW Premier's Prizes for Science & Engineering, 2020
  • Emerging Leader Award, Australasian Society for Biomaterials and Tissue Engineering (ABSTE), 2019
  • Travel award- NSW CVRN Travel Scholarship application, 2018
  • NSW Young Tall Poppy Science Award, Australian Institute of Policy & Science, 2018
  • Bob Fraser New Investigator Award, Matrix Biology Society of Australia & NZ, 2016
  • Fresh Science NSW, 2016
  • Finalist (Top 19) in the L’Oreal Women in Science Fellowship, 2015
  • Research featured in the American Chemical Society (ACS) Headline Science video series, 2015
  • Travel Award- Contributing to Australian Scholarship and Science (CASS) Foundation, 2015
  • Travel Award- Australasian Society for Biomaterials & Tissue Engineering (ASBTE), 2015
  • American Chemical Society (ACS) Editors’ Choice article, 2015
  • Best Early Career Researcher Oral Presentation Award- ASBTE, 2013
  • Best poster prize- ASBTE, 2009;
  • Best poster prize- 34th Lorne Conference on Protein Structure & Function, 2009
  • University Medal, University of Sydney, 2006.             



Research themes/projects 

Currently recruiting PhD and Honours students 

Bioengineered vascularised cardiac patches (Heart Foundation)- There are currently no effective treatments for the damage to the heart tissue caused by a heart attack, meaning this event often leads to complete heart failure. Cardiac patches are living tissues developed in the laboratory by growing human cells on biomaterials or materials designed to interact with the human body. These patches can perform a range of functions that are done by a ‘real’ organ, but their use is currently limited by the lack of a vascular (blood) supply. In the human body, cell survival across very thick layers of tissue is maintained via an extensive network of blood vessels, which deliver oxygen and nutrients to every cell in the body and take away harmful waste products, but this is yet to be effectively replicated in the laboratory. The aim of this project is to develop the next generation of cardiac patches by develop novel biomaterials that support vascular regeneration and therefore extend the utility of cardiac patches for the treatment of heart damage following myocardial infarction.

Collaborators: A/Prof James Chong (Westmead Institute for Medical Research)


Bioengineered tissue vascularisation strategies (ARC Discovery Project)- Bioengineered tissues offer an alternative for the replacement and regeneration of organs and tissues damaged through injury or disease, but they currently have little clinical utility due to the lack of an adequate vascular supply, making vascularisation one of the biggest obstacles in translating biomaterials and tissue engineering research to the clinic.This project aims to understand the physical and biological cues that drive tissue vascularisation and replicate them in biomimetic silk-based biomaterial platforms. This involves (1) development of novel silk biomaterials with tuneable physical/architectural features, (2) silk functionalisation strategies, (3) bioengineering molecules of the vascular niche with specific features using recombinant DNA technology and protein expression and (4) establishment of appropriate assays and imaging modalities to assess vascularisation of 3D biomaterials. 

Collaborators: Prof John Whitelock & A/Prof Megan Lord (UNSW), Prof Marcela Bilek (University of Sydney), Dr Khoon Lim & A/Prof Tim Woodfield (University of Otago, Christchurch)


Next-generation vascular devices- The aim of this project is to develop next-generation biomaterial platforms for use in blood-contacting vascular devices, such as vascular grafts and stents. The focus in particular is on silk-based vascular grafts as they have the potential to overcome the physical, mechanical and biological shortcomings of the current clinical synthetic grafts. In collaboration with Dr Steven Wise at the Heart Research Institute, Dr Rnjak-Kovacina developed a silk-based small-diameter vascular graft with very promising performance in pre-clinical trials. 

Collaborators: Dr Steven Wise (HRI, University of Sydney), Dr Anna Waterhouse (HRI, University of Sydney) 


Professional Activities

  • Member of the Bioengineering Flagship Advisory Board, Australian Cardiovascular Alliance (ACvA) (2020-current)
  • Member of the Centre for Commercialisation of Regenerative Medicine (CCRM) Australia Advisory Board (2018-current)
  • Australasian Society for Biomaterials & Tissue Engineering, Treasurer & Secretary (2017-present), member (2008-present)    
  • Australian Society for Medical Research (ASMR), member (2018-present) 
  • American Chemical Society (ACS), member (2015-present)
  • Matrix Biology Society of Australia and New Zealand, member (2014-present)
  • International Society for Matrix Biology, member (2014-present)
  • Tissue Engineering & Regenerative Medicine International Society (TERMIS), member (2012-present)
  • NIH Tissue Engineering Resource Centre, member (2011-2014)