Researcher’s $2.1M grant renewal will further our understanding of how diseases develop

Daniel Conway’s study of tissue and organ cell function, funded by the National Institutes of Health, may provide clues into the development and progression of cancer and other diseases.

Dan Conway giving a presentation
Daniel E. Conway, Ph.D.

A Virginia Commonwealth University engineering professor has received a $2,093,541 grant renewal from the National Institutes of Health for his research into how mechanical forces regulate cellular processes, which is key to understanding the development and progression of disease.

Daniel E. Conway, Ph.D., the Inez A. Caudill Junior Professor in Biomedical Engineering and an associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, in 2016 was awarded a five-year Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award of $1.89 million from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. The grant renewal extends support for another five years.

Conway’s mechanobiology research focuses on investigating how mechanical forces across proteins affect cellular function. Epithelial cells separate the body from the outside environment, line cavities inside the body and are the major tissue in glands. Problems with these cells, which are critical for tissue and organ function, are associated with defective wound healing and the development and progression of cancer.

Conway and researchers in his lab have been identifying fundamental properties of cells that affect how tissue structures form and how mechanical forces might help keep normal cells stable. A better understanding of how cell structure and tissue can be disrupted mechanically could provide clues into what happens in diseases.

“This collection of projects is really about understanding how mechanical forces within cells regulate homeostasis in the equilibrium of multicellular groups of epithelial cells,” he said.

With support from the original grant, Conway has published 14 peer-reviewed journal articles on his investigation into two regions of the cell that are mechanically important. “We’re looking at how forces between the cells — we refer to those as cell-cell adhesions — and how forces at the cell’s nucleus regulate stability of these multicellular structures,” he said.

Conway and his then-doctoral student, Vani Narayanan, co-authored a study that identified the importance of nuclear-cytoskeletal connections in regulating cellular contractility and maintaining tissue homeostasis.

In a separate study, Conway and Narayanan showed that osmotic gradients generate large mechanical forces in closed 3D tissue structures, and that these forces regulate fundamental cellular processes.

Conway is also working with collaborators at other institutions and in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the VCU College of Engineering, including associate professor Christopher A. Lemmon, Ph.D., and associate professor René Olivares-Navarrete, D.D.S, Ph.D.