by Sophie Burkholder
Bioengineers Tackle Heart Disease
Heart disease is currently the leading cause of death in the United States, resulting in about 630,000 deaths every year according to the Center for Disease Control. One of the most common side effects of heart disease is damage to blood vessels and cardiac tissue, which can ultimately lead to conditions like high blood pressure, arrhythmia, and even cardiac arrest. In serious cases of irreversible heart damage, often the only option for patients is a full heart transplant, and efforts to engineer vascularized cardiac tissue grafts have proved challenging in research so far.
But researchers Ying Zheng, Ph.D., and Charles Murry, M.D., Ph.D., both of whom have joint appointments in Bioengineering at the University of Washington, have found success in using human microvascular grafts to create working blood vessels in vitro to treat infarcted rat hearts. The new heart muscle, developed from human embryonic stem cell-derived endothelial cells in petri dishes, was grown with a focus on not only being able to easily integrate it in vivo, but also in creating a patch of vasculature that closely mirrored that of the heart. In concentrating more on the mechanical aspects of the blood vessel network, Zheng and Murry were able to better restore normal blood flow to the damaged rat hearts after integration of the grafts. The study appears in a recent edition of Nature Communications.
Another team of bioengineers, led by Michael Sacks, Ph.D. at the University of Texas at Austin, recently invented a software-based method for repairing mitral valves in the heart. Their work, published in the International Journal for Numerical Methods in Biomedical Engineering, uses computational modeling techniques to create a noninvasive way of simulating repairs to the mitral valve, which will allow for a better prediction of surgical procedures and postoperative side effects on a more patient-specific basis. This ability to know which treatment plan may be best-suited for a given patient is important especially for valve repair, as heart valves are notoriously difficult to model or image due to the complexity of their functions. But through the use of advanced technology in 3D echocardiography, Sacks and his team say that their new model is accurate enough to rely on in clinical settings.
Virtual Reality Assists in the Evaluation of Surgery
Any form of surgery is always a high risk procedure, as it is subject to a wide variety of sources of human error and irregularity, even with the best surgeons. Certainly, there should be a system in place to not only continually assess the knowledge of surgeons throughout their careers, but also to evaluate their practices and techniques during operation. Such an evaluation, however, would put patients at risk during the assessment of the surgeon.
But now a team of researchers from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has developed a way of simulating colorectal surgical procedures using virtual reality technology. Suvranu De, Sc.D. — the J. Erik Jonsson ‘22 Distinguished Professor of Engineering and Head of the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace and Nuclear Engineering with joint appointments in Biomedical Engineering and Information Technology and Web Science —leads the project which incorporates both visual and tactile feedback for users to employ as a tool for both training and evaluating colorectal surgeons. While virtual reality simulators have been used for similar applications related to procedures like the colonoscopy, they have yet to be fully developed for open surgical procedures, because of the difficulties in creating a fully engaged and immersive environment. Nonetheless, De and his team hope that their work will lead to the creation of the first “Virtual Intelligent Preceptor,” which will allow for more advanced technological innovations in aspects of surgical education that have so far been difficult to standardize. Support for the project comes from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NBIB).
Penn BE’s Dr. Bassett on Understanding Knowledge Networks in the Brain
As a network neuroscientist, Danielle Bassett, Ph.D., Eduardo D. Glandt Faculty Fellow and Associate Professor in the Department Bioengineering, brings together insights from a variety of fields to understand how the brain’s connections form and change: mathematics, physics, electrical engineering and developmental biology, to name a few. Bassett’s recent work on the learning process also draws from linguistics, educational theory and other domains even further afield.
The intersection and interaction of knowledge from multiple sources doesn’t just describe Bassett’s methodology; it’s at the heart of her research itself. At the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics’ Annual Meeting last year, Bassett provided an address on how the structure of knowledge networks can influence what our brains can do when it comes to learning new things.
People & Places:
Tammy Dorsey, a graduate student at Wichita State University, created a non-invasive in utero tool to help read the oxygen levels of unborn babies as part of her senior design project. Dorsey says the inspiration for the project came from complications during the birth of her middle child, who despite having a normal heart rate throughout the entire pregnancy, was born blue. The device Dorsey created uses measurements of the baby’s pH to read fetal oxygen levels. She hopes that the design will help doctors better detect when a fetus is in distress during pregnancy and childbirth.
The field of bioengineering is constantly growing, and new programs are always in development. Boise State University has announced the launch of a new doctoral program in bioengineering that will begin in the fall of 2019. Developed through the collaboration of the university’s College of Health Sciences, College of Engineering, Graduate College, and College of Arts and Sciences, this new opportunity to do research in the field of bioengineering will have three study tracks available in biomechanics, mechanobiology, and human performance.
The new biomedical engineering department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst has announced the department’s first faculty appointments. The founding department head will be Professor Tammy L. Haut Donahue, Ph.D., whose research focus is on the biomechanics of the musculoskeletal system. Another professor joining the department’s new faculty is Seth W. Donahue, Ph.D., who has also done research in the field of biomechanics, and specifically how it pertains to tissue regeneration.
Since we last posted, there have also been several significant academic appointments in the field of Bioengineering. This week, we would like to congratulate Bruce Tromberg, Ph.D., on his appointment as the director of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB). Dr. Tromberg is currently a Professor with appointments in Biomedical Engineering and Surgery at the University of California at Irvine, where he leads research in bioimaging and biophotonics. He has also served on the External Advisory Board of NIH P41 Center for Magnetic Resonance and Optical Imaging here at Penn since 2009, and has also given several lectures here on his work in bioimaging.
Secondly, we congratulate the University of Toronto’s Professor Warren Chan, Ph.D., who was recently named as a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Nanobioengineering. Professor Chan, who is also the director of the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Toronto, conducts research in the field of nanotechnology for applications in the treatment and diagnosis of cancer and viral diseases.
And finally, we also want to congratulate Frank Pintar, Ph.D., on his appointment as the Founding Chair of the Marquette University and Medical College of Wisconsin. Dr. Pintar’s research in bioengineering involves the study of the biomechanics involved with brain and spinal cord injury, with a focus on motor vehicle crash trauma.