Rebecca Heise, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering.
Rebecca Heise, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering.

VCU researcher is developing lung-derived nanoparticles to repair lung tissue

Rebecca Heise, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, is investigating how to promote healing in an injured lung by developing nanoparticles derived from lung material.

Patients who have a sudden injury that causes severe shortness of breath, such as smoke inhalation, drowning or a drug overdose, often develop acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). Acute respiratory distress and acute lung injury each have high mortality rates.

“Right now, patients typically get put on a mechanical ventilator,” Heise said. “There aren’t any specific therapies for treating it or repairing the lung.”

Heise’s research focuses on mechanobiology of the lung as well as biomaterial development for tissue engineering and regenerative medicine with the goal of repairing the lung. The structure of the lung is complex, with the airways dividing into increasingly smaller branches. For the furthest ends of those areas, the distal part of the lung, “it’s hard to get medicine into that area.”

Heise is principal investigator on a two-year grant from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute at the National Institutes of Health awarded in June to develop nanoparticles of naturally-derived material formed through electrospray that could lead to a novel therapeutic lung injury treatment. Heise’s approach uses proteins from the lung that are decellularized, or stripped of their cells, leaving behind the matrix and structure. “We’re using the lung to repair the lung,” she said.

Her lab has previously found that these nanoparticles themselves, which are antibacterial, seem to provide a benefit and promote repair for the cells, “even without an additional drug. We'll eventually explore adding existing therapies,” she said.

Heise is collaborating on the project with Masahiro Sakagami, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Pharmaceutics in the VCU School of Pharmacy. Both Heise and Sakagami are faculty in VCU’s Pharmaceutical Engineering Ph.D. program and are members of the Center for Pharmaceutical Engineering and Sciences, both of which are collaborations between Engineering and Pharmacy.

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