Week in BioE (October 6, 2017)

We Bleed Green

field goalBiomechanics is a subdiscipline within bioengineering with many applications that include studying how tissue forms and grows during development (see our profile of incoming faculty member Alex Hughes to learn more) and determining how the ‘imprint’ of spine-based pain can be treated with anti-inflammatory medication (see story here on work from the lab of Dr. Beth Winkelstein). Understanding and analyzing human performance are other areas of biomechanics application. On September 24, Eagles kicker Jake Elliott set a team record when he kicked a 61 yard field goal at the end of regulation time to beat the Giants. Marking the achievement, the Philadelphia Inquirer featured an interview with Dr. Chase Pfeifer, a biomedical engineer from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL), to find out what factors contribute to a successful field goal from this distance. Pfeifer has both knowledge and experience with this question; he was a backup kicker for the Florida State Seminoles as an undergraduate. In the Inquirer, Dr. Pfeifer explained to readers the biophysics behind Elliott’s record kick.

Dr. Pfeifer assures readers that there’s more to kicking a 61-yard field goal than strong muscles. He explains, “The timing of muscle activation was actually more important than muscle strength in achieving that higher foot velocity.” Four muscle groups were activated by Elliott to set his record. In addition, Pfeifer’s colleague at UNL, Professor Tim Gay of the physics department, explained to the Inquirer how the climatic conditions favored Elliott’s success. Specifically, since it was a hot day, the air was less dense, allowing for longer kick distances.

Speaking of football, a new article in Annals of Biomedical Engineering offers some hope for NFL players and the league itself in the wake of growing awareness and concern about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The increased focus on CTE has resulted in increased research on the condition and its prevention. Real-time measurement of impact energy in head injuries has, until now, relied on measurements of the motion of the head or helmet, rather than measuring the impact energy directly.

In the Annals article, scientists from Brigham Young University, including David T. Fullwood, Ph.D., professor of mechanical engineering, report on the testing of a new sensor used to measure the impact event. The authors implanted nano-composite foam (NCF) sensors into football helmets and then submitted the helmets to two dozen drop tests. The data collected from the foam sensors were compared to two of the most widely used indices to measure head injury risk, achieving excellent correlation (>90%) with injury risk indicators. The authors intend to test newer models of the sensors in the future, as well as in vivo testing.

Breast Cancer News

Despite significant advances in diagnosis and treatment, breast cancer remains the most common cancer in women. More than 300,000 women are newly diagnosed in the United States each year. Maximizing the effectiveness of treatment involves early detection of the tumor and its metastasis. Imaging plays a key role in this process. However, early tumors are very small, making their detection quite difficult.

In response to this challenge, Zheng-Rong Lu, Ph.D., the M. Frank Rudy and Margaret Domiter Rudy Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Case Western Reserve University, has coauthored a paper recently published in Nature Communications showing that a newly developed type of molecule could be used for highly sensitive magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to detect and stratify early breast tumors.

Dr. Lu and his colleagues engineered molecules called fullerenes, which are hollow, spherical molecules of carbon. The team embedded gadolinium, a rare earth metal that is easily detected with MR imaging, into the fullerene to create metallofullerenes. They tested these metallofullerenes both in vitro and in a mouse model to determine how well they enhanced the ability of MRI to detect tumors. Metallofullerene particles could not only distinguish cancers more effectively on MRI, but they could also distinguish more aggressive tumor types from less aggressive ones. In addition, they found that metallofullerenes rapidly cleared from the body via the kidneys, ensuring that these agents would pose minimal toxicity risk. If this technology proves effective in humans, it could significantly improve the early detection of breast cancer and, in turn, survival rates.

One possible risk for breast cancer patients is the metastasis of the cancer to other body regions.  Scientists at Cornell identified a mineral process underlying breast cancer metastasis to bones, reporting their findings in PNAS. Led by Claudia Fischbach-Teschl, Ph.D., associate professor of biomedical engineering at Cornell, the authors investigated how hydroxylapatite — a naturally occurring mineral — participates in metastasis.

Dr. Fischbach-Teschl and her colleagues used X-ray scattering and Raman spectroscopy to examine the nanostructures of hydroxylapatite in the bones of mice with and without breast cancer. They found that bones were more likely to be metastasized by primary breast tumors if the hydroxylapatite crystals in them were less mature. Before the cancer spreads to the bone, the authors found that the cancer “communicates” with these immature crystals, preparing sites in the bone to which the cancer can spread.

With 80% of metastatic breast cancer cases spreading to the bones, the discovery of the Cornell team could contribute enormously to preventing metastasis — not only of breast cancer but also of any cancer with a greater likelihood of spreading to the bones.

A Review of Glucose Monitoring Technology

Our ability to treat diabetes has consistently improved over the years, but the need for patients with the disease to monitor their blood glucose requires either multiple needle pricks or invasive insulin pumps.  However, several technologies are in development around the world to make blood glucose monitoring less cumbersome. In a new article published in Bioengineering, engineers in the United Arab Emirates offer a review of the latest technologies, including analytic methods that could streamline decisions on doses of insulin to offset high glucose levels.

People and Places

The University of California, Davis, opened its Molecular Prototyping and BioInnovation Laboratory (MPBIL) in 2014. Since then, the “biomaker lab” has stood as an example of the future of biotechnology education. In collaboration with UCD’s First-Year Seminar Program, the MPBIL has launched a student-designed pilot course that has thus far yielded three seminars. You can read more about UCD’s innovative program at their Web site.

To promote diversity in engineering, the cosmetics company L’Oréal started the L’Oréal USA For Women in Science Program, which awards Changing the Face of STEM mentoring grants. Among this year’s recipients is John Hopkins University’s Sridevi Sarma, Ph.D. Dr. Sarma, who is an associate professor of biomedical engineering, will use her grant in collaboration with the Girls Scouts of Central Maryland to promote physics education for young women. Congratulations to her!

This Week in BioE (July 13, 2017)

Devices and Drug Delivery

Abdominal surgery can lead to complications when the intestines are accidentally damaged. One key point in the surgery is during wound closure, when the surgeon must place the final sutures without knowing where the underlying intestine is located. A new material designed by bioengineers can be inserted into the abdomen and protect the intestines from perforations by the surgical needle. Key features of this material include its flexibility to fit into the small incision made during laprascopy and its ability to dissolve naturally within hours upon insertion into the abdominal cavity.  Before it dissolves, the material is tough enough to protect the intestines from puncture, allowing the surgeon to close the incision with much less risk of perforation. So the material is ready when it is needed and disappears soon thereafter.

New materials appear frequently to perform the functions of naturally occurring biological tissues. For decades, several researchers attempted to re-create cartilage outside of the body. Although these artificial cartilage tissues may contain all of the right ‘ingredients’ — i.e., molecules and cells — the tissue is commonly not strong enough to withstand the forces normally experienced by the target tissue.  Recently, researchers invented a process to load the cartilage tissue surrogate while it was fabricated, a departure from the traditional process in which the tissue substitute is mechanically loaded after it is built. Both techniques are designed to make the artificial tissue stronger.  However, this subtle new design step to mechanically load during fabrication makes the cartilage substitute six times stronger than any existing manufacturing technique, raising the possibility that we can build tissue outside the body for use inside the body.

emu egg
An emu egg

Finally, the field is constantly discovering new ways to use historical observations in science. One example was an observation from the analysis of 19,000-year-old DNA from an emu egg, made possible because the DNA was protected from degradation by the calcified material present in the eggshell. This scientific observation to understand the origin of the species inspired bioengineer Bill Murphy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to create a new method to protect proteins from degradation by incorporating these proteins into mineralized materials. Reminiscent of the mineralized matrix found in the emu eggshell that protected DNA for 19,000 years, the charged mineralized matrix stabilizes the protein structure and significantly improves the stability of the protein. By designing the mineralized material to degrade slowly, this work shows that one can stabilize and release therapeutic proteins over much longer periods than previously possible.

Technological Advances in Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment

Despite tremendous advances in diagnosis and treatment, cancer remains a major public health threat. Surgery is often a key part of cancer treatment, but tumor removal is complicated by the difficulty in producing surgical margins that are free of cancer cells. If cancer cells remain in the margins, it is common for the cancer to return. However, a team of researchers at the University of Washington developed a light-sheet microscope capable of imaging these surgical margins quickly – about 30 minutes. The technology could go a long way toward reducing or eliminating the 20% to 40% of cases of breast cancer in which relapse occurs.

While breast cancer remains the most common cancer among women, proliferation of HPV has resulted in a steadily increasing rate of cervical cancer over past decades. Early screening here is a key to successful treatment, but gynecological examinations are uncomfortable for many women. Failure to schedule a follow-up colposcopy is common following an abnormal Pap smear, resulting in persistently higher rates. A pocket colposcope developed by Duke Biomedical Engineering Professor Nimmi Ramanujam could close this gap in treatment. Although the colposcope must still be rigorously tested, a small group of 15 volunteers who tested the device reported that it was 80% accurate.

New BioE dept at Lehigh

Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., has announced the creation of a Department of Bioengineering. Anand Jagota, a professor formerly in the Department of Chemical Engineering, founded the department and will act as its first chair. In addition to Professor Jagota, 16 professors form the core department faculty.

Welcome to the club, Lehigh!

Project Builds on Breast Cancer Screening Tech

breast cancer
An embedded 11×11 cluster of 100-micron objects (which models a cluster of microcalcifications — one of the earliest indicators of breast cancer). (A) shows the results from the current standard of imaging only along the chest wall. (B) shows the results of our method that considers the patient’s unique breast geometry using a Custom V imaging pattern. (B) resolves the embedded cluster as a distinct cluster of objects while (A) appears to blur the final image.

Breast cancer continues to affect more than 10% of all women — and a small percentage of men — despite significant advances in diagnosis and treatment. While a majority cases today can be successfully treated, early detection is essential to beginning treatment before it’s too late.

Among the more recent innovations in screening has been three-dimensional mammography. However, this modality has lacked the ability to personalize the scan to the individual patient’s breast, instead only acquiring several two-dimensional images along the chest wall, resulting in a lack of individualization for the patient.

A senior design project team at the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Bioengineering, however, has helped to develop a more personalized 3D imaging technology, which acquires a series of images but instead following the contour of the breast itself. With their efforts, the team earned one of the three awards given to student teams yearly.

The four-student team, consisting of Lucy Chai, Elizabeth Kobe, Margaret Nolan, and Sushmitha Yarrabothula, picked up a project begun last year (a common practice with senior design projects) and demonstrated with their work that the imaging technique could be applied using a digital phantom (a computerized breast model) with great clarity, including successful resolution of a simulated mass just one-tenth of a millimeter in size.

Now, the four seniors will hand off the project to another team, continuing this multi-year research. Ultimately, before it can be applied in actual patients, the modality will need to be tested against the current standard of care in terms of its ability to detect small masses in the breast. Nevertheless, this year’s team moved the ball downfield significantly.