Yong Yang, an assistant chemical engineering professor at West Virginia University’s Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, is creating a system that mimics the human brain’s cell function to help unlock the clues to curing Alzheimer’s disease.

It’s all about being able to replicate the soft tissues of the human brain, and how things form and drugs behave, without actually using a human brain.

It’s an in vitro system – an artificial environment occurring outside a living organism – funded by a $175,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. But more than a working model, it is a bridge to a more precise way of studying the formation of amyloid plaques, which trigger Alzheimer’s and other diseases of the brain.

Scientists traditionally have studied human brain cells in culture dishes, such as plastic Petri dishes and tested treatments on animals. But a system similar to human function is necessary to help analyze plaque and, eventually, discover which drugs best combat the disease, Yang said.

“We know about the formation of amyloid plaque in the brain by studying animal models,” Yang said. “For humans, we’re still not clear how it happens and we cannot perform tests directly on humans. We need something similar to the human body with which we can do some of the drug testing. That’s a key.”

Still in its conceptual stage, the model will incorporate an elastic material that is much softer than that found in a culture dish, comparable to the material of a contact lens. It will contain micro scale channels, each 50 microns in depth, or roughly 50 percent of the width of a human hair, that will simulate the flow of fluids in the human body. The channels are designed to induce a variety of behaviors in cells being studied, such as different speeds of flow. The design of a variety of nanoscale features will enable scientists to study different cell behavior within a single model.

“We’re engineering a platform that has similar cues to what we have found in the human brain,” Yang said. “We may be able to show how the amyloid plaque forms outside the human body so we can test drugs and facilitate the drug testing in humans through clinical trials.”

Although millions of cells and therapies will need to be tested to form conclusive evidence of success, an in vitro system is the first important step to finding a cure.

“In the brain, the environment where cells reside is very soft and cellular behavior is totally different (than in a culture dish), which is very rigid. How can we use the results based on the Petri dish to humans? There’s a huge gap,” Yang said. “Eventually we can eliminate these plaques and maybe we can cure the patient with Alzheimer’s or other neuro degenerative diseases.”

Allison Bruce and Xiaoyan Yu, chemical engineering graduate students, will be assisting Yang in this research, along with researchers at WVU’s Robert C. Byrd Health Sciences Center.

Yang has been involved in biomedical research since 1999 and is helping his department establish an expanded program of similar research. The goal is to “train students to use engineering principles and biological training to contribute to health care research,” he said.

This project will help other researchers and medical professional understand how cells interact in their environment, and can also be extended for stem cell and cancer cell research in the future.

Fewer than 10 proposals out of 100 receive NSF funding, he said.

“We’re building this model at a low cost,” Yang said. “It’s affordable and easy to use—that’s how we as engineers can contribute to human health care. The NSF can see the potential for health care.”



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CONTACT: Mary C. Dillon; Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources
304.293.4086; mary.dillon@mail.wvu.edu