AMHERST, Mass. – Yubing Sun, assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has received a five-year, $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study how to build a key group of human cells in the laboratory – cells that cover surfaces of the body and line internal organs. The grant is from the NSF’s Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER).
Sun says he will be studying how to make epithelial cells in the laboratory that function the same as those found in many organs of the body, using stem cell-derived precursors of the central nervous system as a model system. He says a key element in this research is finding the mechanical and biochemical regulatory mechanisms and signals that determine cell arrangement or planar cell polarity (PCP). “Epithelial cells line the surfaces of many organs in the body, including the inner surface of hollow organs. As such, they often exhibit different functional properties and abilities within the plane of cell sheets – something that is called PCP,” Sun says.
Sun, in addition to his faculty appointment in the College of Engineering, is affiliated with the Institute of Applied Life Sciences (IALS), which combines deep and interdisciplinary expertise from 29 departments on the UMass Amherst campus to translate fundamental research into innovations that benefit humankind.
The biofabrication of fully functional epithelial tissues has a broad application in tissue engineering and regenerative medicine, Sun says. Currently, however, cells grown in culture dishes typically do not demonstrate the same properties as those in the body. His research will look at several factors that could affect how the cells develop outside the body. “The project will systematically study the effects of geometrical confinement, matrix stiffness, mechanical strains, and chemical gradients on the initiation and maintenance of PCP, as well as identify the molecules that relay external mechanical signals to the cells for establishing PCP,” Sun says.
The epithelial cell polarity within a sheet or plane of cells is tightly regulated by signaling within and between cells. This signaling does not appear to be maintained in cultured cells and, as a result, reestablishing PCP in manufactured tissues has never been achieved, he says.
By improving understanding how epithelial cells establish this necessary functional variation, this project will support the development of biomanufacturing and tissue engineering systems to produce layers of epithelial cells that are necessary for normal organ function. In addition, the fundamental knowledge gained will advance understanding with respect to normal and pathological tissue growth and development.
Sun leads the Laboratory for Multiscale Bioengineering and Mechanobiology in IALS’ Models to Medicine Center. He and his research team study how mechanical information, encoded in nano-scale molecules, guides micro-scale cells to assemble into mili-scale functional tissues and organs. They also develop tools that interact with biomolecules, cells and tissues for a range of applications from diagnostics of diseases to regenerative medicine. Sun is also a member of IALS’ Center for Personalized Health Monitoring.