Research faculty from VCU Engineering’s Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME) are diligently working to advance their investigations with support from research grants and collaborations with the private sector. Below is a listing of awards several faculty members have received recently and how these contributions facilitate their research.
Priscilla Hwang, Ph.D., Assistant Professor
- National Science Foundation CAREER Award
- American Cancer Society TheoryLab Collaborative Grant
- National Cancer Institute R01 Research Grant
Through funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award, Hwang investigates how leader cells contribute to collective migration, a process important to human development and an enabler of progression in diseases like cancer. In addition, the award facilitates community outreach programs to teach Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) principles to students within the community.
Hwang also partners with Paula Bos, Ph.D., VCU Health assistant professor of pathology through the American Cancer Society (ACS) TheoryLab Collaborative Grant. Combining their biomedical engineering and immunology expertise within cancer research, the duo investigate how immune cells regulate the tumor environment using cancer-on-a-chip microfluidic models, a system that mimics features of living tissues. Researchers can place live cells on this device and observe how the cells respond to chemical and mechanical factors in real time.
The National Cancer Institute R01 Research Grant is a partnership with researchers at Washington University in St. Louis. It will combine expertise in microfluidic bioengineering, biomechanical engineering, molecular and cellular cancer biology with computational simulations of collective migration to identify and experimentally test mechanical and chemical properties that influence tumor migration.
Jennifer Jordan, Ph.D., Assistant Professor
- NIH National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute CROWN Study
- NIH National Institute on Aging Virginia-ART4 Study
- NIH National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute Undergraduate Cardiovascular Research Program
- Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute Study
Jordan’s lab performs advanced analysis of clinical cardiovascular images in several funded research studies. The funding provides for computing resources and student research positions. These studies include:
- The NIH National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute CROWN Study, a first-of-its-kind look into the earliest signs of heart vessel damage in young, pre-menopausal breast cancer survivors. This study partners Jordan’s lab with Duke University’s Cancer Institute, Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist’s Comprehensive Cancer Center and VCU’s Massey Cancer Center.
- The NIH National Institute on Aging Virginia-ART4 Study to assess how medicine that reduces inflammation can prevent heart failure among patients suffering a severe heart attack.This study partners Jordan’s lab with VCU Health and the University of Virginia.
- The Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute Study aims to determine the effectiveness and safety of commonly used pacing treatments for cardiac resynchronization therapy in people with heart failure. This national, multi-center clinical research study is a collaboration between Baylor University and VCU.
Working with VCU’s Pauley Heart Center, Jordan is also part of the NIH National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute Undergraduate Cardiovascular Research Program. The program aims to provide funded research opportunities to students interested in cardiovascular research who come from disadvantaged or under-represented communities. Jordan’s role in this project is to recruit, mentor and conduct an independent study course focusing on research aspects like literature reviews, abstract writing and research poster design.
Michael McClure, Ph.D., Assistant Professor
- VCU Commercialization Award
- Cook MyoSite Industry Funded Research Award
McClure researches muscle-specific collagen scaffolds called decellularized muscle matrices (DMM). Made possible by the VCU Commercialization Award, the grant allows his company, Sarcogenics, LLC, to refine DMMs for use in rotator cuff injuries needing surgical repair. Unique to the Sacogenics DMM is improved regeneration after injury because it supplies muscle-specific properties like growth factors, collagens, laminin and fibronectin.
Working in partnership with industry leaders, McClure’s Cook MyoSite Award enables his team to test cell-based tissue engineering products that will be used by patients. These site-specific muscle cell injections have the capacity to improve a patient’s quality of life.
This research also presents an opportunity to develop new translational technologies between VCU and Cook MyoSite. Existing cell-based therapies could be further enhanced through the partnership by applying technology to more effectively maintain the cells within injured tissues and increase treatment effectiveness. The result is a better understanding for how cell-based tissue engineering products interact with different wound environments.
Carrie Peterson, Ph.D., Assistant Professor
- Department of Defense Spinal Cord Injury Research Program Investigator-Initiated Research Award
Developing and testing a home-based, upper-limb rehabilitation program for individuals with tetraplegia after spinal cord injury is the focus of Peterson’s work. Backed by the Department of Defense Spinal Cord Injury Research Program Investigator-Initiated Research Award, the funding provides for the participation of service members, veterans and civilians with spinal cord injury-related tetraplegia; hardware and software development for the rehabilitation program; and training for graduate students assisting with the project.
This is a collaboration between VCU Engineering, the VCU Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, the Spinal Cord Injury Research Program at the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center and Immersive Experience Labs, LLC.
The objective of the study is to develop a home-based training platform for individuals with tetraplegia to improve their ability to use their arms and hands. The platform they will develop consists of electrical stimulation applied to the back of the neck while users participate in virtual reality arm and hand training. The home-based, low-cost approach will increase the amount of people who have access to improve their ability to use their arms and hands.
After developing the platform, Peterson’s lab will investigate the effectiveness of their home-based rehabilitation, studying an individual's improved ability to grip and grasp objects, reach with and extend their arms, and perform everyday life activities using their arms.
Jennifer Puetzer, Ph.D., Assistant Professor
- VCU Center for Clinical and Translational Research (CCTR) Endowment Fund Grant
- National Science Foundation CAREER Award
In musculoskeletal tissues there is a clear link between increasing age and degeneration, resulting in increased injuries and disease. Puetzer and her team use resources provided by the VCU CCTR Endowment Fund Grant to investigate how advanced glycation end-products (AGEs), sugar-induced crosslinks that accumulate with age and/or diabetes, affect tissue mechanics and cell signaling. The goal is to develop a bench-top tissue model to better understand the aging process and test therapies to mitigate age-related injury and inflammatory diseases. These models are engineered tissue made in a lab for testing different drugs and rehabilitation therapies. Because these tissues are cultivated from a patient’s own cells, bench-top tissue models allow researchers to observe patient-specific responses to a treatment before it is administered.
Advanced glycation end-products are known to alter tissue mechanics and increase inflammation, often leading to inflammatory diseases such as osteoarthritis, osteoporosis and atherosclerosis. The bench-top model Puetzer and her team are developing will identify the ways AGEs affect tissues at different scales of collagen organization.
Human skin has unorganized, small collagen fibers while blood vessels and cartilage have medium collagen fibers, and tendons and ligaments have large collagen fibers. When these are crosslinked by AGEs, Puetzer hypothesizes they will have different mechanics, resulting in different effects on tissue cells. The bench-top model allows researchers to go from observing unorganized small fibers to aligned medium or large fibers to understand how AGEs affect mechanics and cells at each level.
Using this information, researchers hope to predict how tissues throughout the body will change with age so new therapies can be developed. For an aging population this research will help limit healthcare costs, lengthen patient lifespan and allow patients to have more active, pain-free lives.
In addition to age-related research, Puetzer’s NSF CAREER award investigates how these tissues develop and drive repair and regeneration of tendons and ligaments. Awarded by the Biomechanics and Mechanobiology program in Civil, Mechanical and Manufacturing Innovation at the NSF, the research investigates how mechanical cues that occur during development further drive cells to create bigger and stronger collagen fibers. This involves observing how slow stretch, similar to infant growth rates, and quick cyclic loading, similar to muscle movement of arms and legs, drive cells to produce strong, mature collagen fibers.