College of Engineering faculty make waves in innovative brain-related research.
Biomedical Engineering: Harnessing Cancer Cells
Designated a trailblazer by the National Institutes of Health, Chase Cornelison is combining his two areas of expertise—spinal cord regeneration and brain cancer—in an imaginative way. He aims to harness the proliferating power of cancer cells to treat spinal cord injuries and restore function following brain damage.
Spinal cord and brain injuries are devastating, often causing lifelong paralysis and disability. This is because, unlike cells in other organs, neural cells do not recover or regenerate.
To develop new therapeutic strategies, Cornelison, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, studies the microenvironment where cancer cells meet and train other cells to aid tumor growth.
He explains, "We're looking at how the cancer cells are interacting with the neural cells and trying to identify some of the signals passed to those cells so we can reengineer those signals as implantable material to try and regrow an injured spinal cord or injured brain tissue."
He adds, "Our over-arching goal is to design biomaterial strategies for neural repair that instruct remodeling of glial cells—important neural cells capable of regulating inflammation and tissue regeneration."
In other words, Cornelison's groundbreaking research could potentially reverse the devastating damage caused by spinal cord and brain injuries and diseases, including paralysis.
Mechanical and Industrial Engineering: Improving Brain Stents
The Juan Jiménez Research Group, which focuses on the interaction between fluid flow and biology, is performing research that could lead to improvements in the design of live-saving intracranial stents.
Physicians use stents to treat brain aneurysms and to open clogged arteries to increase blood flow to the brain in patients with intracranial stenosis, reducing the chance of a stroke. The tiny wire mesh tubes are left in place, and arterial tissue grows around the stent in a process called reendothelialization, the primary marker for clinical success of these procedures.
Jiménez, an Assistant Professor in the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department and an adjunct in the Biomedical Engineering Department, is investigating how different properties of stents play a role in this critical healing process.
"Unfortunately," he explains, "stents harm the vessel during deployment, and healing can be affected by the design of the stent."
His research group is studying the effects of stent design on blood flow in the brain and subsequently on reendothelialization. "The endothelial cells that line the inner layer of blood vessels are highly responsive to not only the material properties of the stent, but also to the mechanical stresses imparted by the blood flow," Jiménez says.
Greater understanding of how intracranial stents can delay or inhibit healing when left in the body will help engineers design even better stents to unblock the tiny arteries deep inside our brains.
Chemical Engineering: Diagnosing Traumatic Brain Injuries
Nianqiang "Nick" Wu, the Armstrong/Siadat Endowed Professor in the Chemical Engineering Department, is creating a portable optical sensor system to help diagnose traumatic brain injuries (TBIs). Wu's inexpensive system could be used in the field—at the scene of an accident or injury—with results in minutes.
Wu explains that the system would dramatically change the process of TBI diagnosis, which currently requires sending a tube of blood to a central laboratory and waiting hours or days for results.
The pioneering sensor system consists of an ultra-sensitive test strip that is smaller than a credit card as well as a portable electronic reader to record the test results. Medics, or even laypeople, could help diagnose the severity of brain injuries by administering a drop of the victim's blood from a finger prick to the test strip and then feeding that strip into the diagnostic reader. The test strip is engineered with nanotechnology to amplify detection signals and reduce false alarms.
Each year, traumatic brain injuries affect approximately 27 million people worldwide. In the United States, Wu notes, 5.3 million people live with disabilities caused by traumatic brain injuries. Approximately 80 percent of these cases are originally recorded during emergency department visits.
Wu believes this new device will supply results much more quickly—within 25 minutes. He says, "If successful, such an inexpensive and rapid diagnostic testing tool will change practice in diagnosis of traumatic brain injury in emergency departments and pre-hospital settings. It will increase the accuracy of diagnosis, reduce costs, and allow for earlier medical treatment aimed at mitigating both short- and long-term consequences."
traumatic brain injury–related deaths (United States, 2020)
people in the US suffer from a traumatic brain injury
In the spotlight
"What are the forces required to cause tears in brain tissue that lead to cognitive impairment after you have a concussion?" Peyton asks.