UMass Amherst Engineer Yubing Sun Receives $400,000 NSF Grant to Study the Mechanics that Cause Neural Tube Birth Defects

Yubing Sun
Yubing Sun
Neurons derived from human stem cells
Neurons derived from human stem cells

AMHERST, Mass. – Yubing Sun, a professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is using a three-year, $400,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study the biomechanical forces and chemical factors that cause birth defects of the brain and spinal cord in the first few weeks of fetal development. Known as neural tube defects, these conditions occur when critical parts of the central nervous system don’t develop properly.

Sun says researchers have some knowledge about neural tube defects and know that folic acid greatly reduces the risk for the defects. But they don’t know why.

During the first few weeks of development in pregnancy, a ribbon of tissue turns into a tube that becomes the spinal cord and brain. When the tube fails to close or is incomplete, birth defects such as spina bifida and anencephaly occur.

Sun says he wants to gain a greater understanding of the mechanical and chemical factors that guide the development of the neural tubes and will use human cells to study this.

Because stem cells are the basic building blocks of the human body, they rely on mechanical and chemical signals to develop into specific types of tissue like bone and nerves, Sun says. His research will seek to understand how the stem cells that create the neural tubes get those signals and instructions on how to develop.

“We want to provide an engineered environment similar to the organization in our body,” Sun says. He says it is likely that the stem cells respond to both mechanical forces, such as pressure from tissue boundaries, and chemical signals that vary according to where it goes in the cell and in what concentration.

“We want to know the details of that mechanism,” Sun says.

The researchers will test the idea that micro-patterned cell-culture environments can cause human cells to mimic the spatial patterning of cells as they develop in the body by responding to confinement of tissues and changing chemical gradient.

“This is an important first step to tease out the mechanics of neural development,” Sun says “This also has great promise for regenerative medicine.”

Sun is the head of the College of Engineering’s Laboratory for Multiscale Bioengineering and Mechanobiology, which applies and integrates fundamental engineering principles – such as manufacturing, biomechanics, materials science, and micro- or nano-engineering – to understand and harness the mechano-biology of stem cells for modeling currently incurable human diseases and for applications in regenerative medicine.