Fighting disease by re-creating it

Posted on 27. Sep, 2013 by in Academic Departments, Annual Report, Biomedical Engineering, Healthcare and Medicine, Issues, People, Research

Like many good lab discoveries, this one came about by accident. While trying to engineer healthy heart valves, Biomedical Engineering Associate Professor Kristyn Masters was discouraged that cells her student was culturing were forming nasty-looking nodules. These nodules can be present in disease and made the sample cells impossible to use for their intended purpose.

“It was very frustrating,” Masters says. “One day, it just sort of clicked in my head: We’re making these nodules really well. No one really understands how these form or why these form or what conditions they form in.”

That’s when she shifted her research focus from creating healthy tissue to exploring the disease process.

The ultimate goal of her research is to find drugs that can target the major pathways involved in heart valve disease. Masters emphasizes there is no medication currently available that will stop heart valve disease once it starts. “That’s because we don’t know what this process is yet,” she says. “Once we identify all the things going on inside the cell that regulate these processes, we can identify drugs that are inhibitors of the different pathways that lead to disease.”

Heart valve disease is not the only disease Masters is trying to reverse engineer. With Biomedical Engineering Assistant Professor Pamela Kreeger, Masters also is trying to replicate a cancer environment. Using a similar process to create tumor tissues, Masters and Kreeger hope to better understand the cancer process and to figure out why some anti-tumor drugs are more effective than others.

One of the major future challenges Masters and her students will face is replicating the different stages of a disease. Previously, the team has only been able to examine diseases in a single time-point, like a crime-scene reconstruction. But, by re-creating the stages of disease, Masters hopes to be able to distinguish whether factors are present in disease as a result of the disease or because they caused it. “The ultimate question here is what is the initiating factor,” she says. “And that is much, much trickier than replicating diseased tissue.”

The National Institutes of Health funds Masters’ research.Bucky Badger head

Tags: , , ,

Comments are closed.