Ning Zhang, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, whose research is at the interface of engineering and biology, is investigating how mini-organs derived from stem cells could someday be used in the treatment of disease.
1. What are you working on right now?
I am working on producing organoids, or mini-organs, from human-induced pluripotent stem cells (hiPSCs) and studying the utility of organoids in creating in vitro tissue models for healthy and disease conditions as well as in cell/tissue transplantation. In particular, my lab has focused on using brain organoids to study neurodevelopment, brain trauma and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease.
2. How has being at VCU helped move this work forward?
Being located near VCU’s medical campus facilitates collaboration between engineering and clinical researchers. At VCU Health, active research is going on in almost all clinical research disciplines. This helps the identification of clinical needs/applications of engineering systems, testing the engineering systems and translation of these systems to clinics.
3. What attracted you to this research?
Organoids have been recently produced by other labs in the nation and have become an emerging tool to study tissue development, trauma and pathologies. I am interested in the research based upon the belief that organoids will someday advance stem cell research to clinical applications. There are so many unanswered questions in organoid research, and I have seen the potential of engineering principles and biomedical systems in finding the answers to these questions.
4. What do you hope to achieve by producing organoids?
This research addresses an urgent need in the field of stem cell research and helps to translate it to the clinical arena. I hope to define the utility of organoids in the fabrication of in vitro tissue models for various diseases, develop technologies to sustain long-term culture of organoids and their maturation and potentially use organoids in the treatment of diseases and trauma.
5. Tell us how you are developing these organoids.
Brain organoids will be derived from healthy and diseased (e.g., of Alzheimer’s disease background) hiPSCs and characterized in terms of cell phenotypes, composition and structural organization in reference to those of a native human brain. Modifications of brain organoids will be performed to mimic trauma or disease conditions via viral transfection or exposure to hypoxia. Changes in the brain organoids in response to these modifications will be validated against the histology (microscopic anatomy) of trauma or diseased human brain.
Fun Fact: My three-word bio would be “material-cell-body.”