Math may unlock key to tissue regeneration

BOULDER — If you need new knee cartilage in your worn-out knees, the day may come when it can be grown from your body’s own cells, if a $400,000 mathematical modeling project goes well.

Patients who have suffered heart attacks may someday be able to receive “heart patches” made of their own healthy cell tissue to replace scar tissue left behind by the attacks, with information from mathematical models that uses data from tissue research at the Jennie Smoly Caruthers Biotechnology building at the University of Colorado-Boulder.

Researchers are using a gelatinlike substance made of water and polymer to try and grow new human tissue in a laboratory setting. They’re using a cell “scaffold,” that currently degrades too quickly for new tissue to grow. Dr. Stephanie Bryant, a professor at CU’s BioFrontiers Institute, is leading the research team.

New mathematical modeling of the tissue research will create algorithms to “predict” which research variables are more likely to create desired results, said Franck Vernerey, an assistant professor of civil, environmental and architectural engineering at CU-Boulder. The National Science Foundation awarded Vernerey $400,000 over five years to develop the mathematical models.

“What we would like in the end is a new software that could eventually be used to look at the ways the cell can behave,” Vernerey said. “You could plug in the computer model to tell you what scaffold you need to have successful cell growth.”

The CU researchers are interested in growing knee cartilage and heart tissue because so many patients are dealing with those issues as the baby boomer population ages. But they hope to be able to form any kind of human tissue in the future, Vernerey said, including human organs and stem cells used in bone marrow transplants for cancer patients.

The idea of using math to help speed up science research certainly is not new – researchers cracked the genetic code of human DNA in 2003, using computer modeling and robotic sequencing.

But it takes a person with a background and interest in both disciplines — math and biotechnology — to put together mathematical models for the current project, Vernerey pointed out. Vernerey read about Bryant’s research and contacted her in 2007. She gave him the go-ahead to apply for funds and create the mathematical modeling software. The tissue research has received National Institutes of Health funding and other sources of funding.

As part of the project, Vernerey plans to create “smart” modeling software that can “learn” from experimental data and become predictive. Such software can replace the millions of experiments needed to test for numerous variables, he said.

Graduate students recruited to work on the project will need to know about physics, math and computational modeling. They’ll develop the software, but also need to understand how the biotechnology experiments work, Vernerey said.

Vernerey’s collaboration with Bryant is exactly the type of interdisciplinary project that CU’s BioFrontiers Institute is all about, said Leslie Leinwand, chief scientific officer of the program. Nobel Prize winner Tom Cech is co-director of the program.

Creating interdisciplinary research project allows the faculty to be more innovative, Leinwand said. It also helps students be exposed to more ideas and more different ways to approach research challenges, she said.

“Collaborative research is a win for everyone,” Leinwand said. “The university benefits as a whole, because researchers are more comfortable reaching across academic boundaries that exist between departments to do their work.”

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