Suggs Lab uses tissue engineering to study tumors, vascular diseases

Areeba Khwaja

The human body has the amazing ability to heal itself naturally. However, sometimes even the body could use some help. 

The Suggs Lab in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at UT-Austin is working to provide that kick-start. Researchers are using tissue engineering to enhance healing and restore function in conditions such as cancerous tumor growths, inadequate blood supply and cardiac arrest. The lab uses stem cell therapy to promote vascular health and a model that sheds light on tumor growth in the human body, among other methods to improve the effectiveness of the heart. 

Tissue engineering is a way for researchers to start growing cells to restore, regenerate or improve damaged organs. To do this, scientists use synthesized structures that mimic the extracellular matrix, or a structure cells can grow on, to create a support system for new cell growth. They can then use these cells for further research. 

Shane Allen, a graduate biomedical engineering student who works in the Suggs Lab, uses 3-D hydrogels to better understand how tumors grow in the human body. 3-D hydrogels are large molecules that swell up when they come into contact with water. Researchers use 3-D hydrogels to manipulate and replicate the conditions of the human body.

“Instead of looking inside the cell, we study the outside of the cell to see what’s going on the tissue level,” Allen said.  

This year, the American Cancer Society predicts that 595,690 people will die of cancer in the United States alone. In his most recent State of the Union address, President Barack Obama called out to researchers and scientists to find a cure for cancer. Researchers across the United States are using lab techniques such as tissue engineering to better understand cancerous tumor growth. 

Allen said that he uses 3-D hydrogels to replicate the stiffness of tissue and measure how different cells respond to it. These factors give researchers clues about how cancer grows. For example, the stiffness of breast cancer tissue can show how aggressively the cancer is spreading, according to Allen.

“In theory, if we can understand the mechanism behind the interaction cells have with their environment and then block that mechanism, we can potentially use this pathway to administer tumor therapies,” Allen said.

In addition to cancer, researchers in the lab are working on therapies for ischemia, or reduced blood flow to certain areas of the body. Biomedical engineering graduate student Chelsea Kraynak studies how scientists can improve the lifespan of stem cells in the human body. 

Kraynak said that signaling between stem cells influences how fast the tissue can regenerate. However, stem cells struggle to survive in the harsh environment of the human body — they usually die within a few seconds after injection. 

“The idea is that by promoting their survival for longer, there would be an enhanced effect that the stem cell therapy would have on vascular regeneration,” Kraynak said. 

Kraynak’s research may help doctors treat peripheral artery disease, which results in reduced blood flow away from the heart to other parts of the body. Peripheral artery disease is a common symptom of chronic illnesses, such as diabetes and heart disease, according to Kraynak. 

While it will take time for the clinical applications of tissue engineering to become publicly available, advances in this field could potentially apply to many medical conditions. 

“Our goal is to design systems to regenerate and influence cellular behavior,” Allen said.