Engineering student wins top research paper award for use of novel materials for cell cultures

RIT undergraduate Andrea Mazzocchi recognized for work on ultrathin membranes at Biomedical Engineering Society conference

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Andrea Mazzocchi

Andrea Mazzocchi, an engineering student at Rochester Institute of Technology, was awarded the 2015 Undergraduate Extended Abstract Design and Research Award for her work as part of a campus research team on a new biomedical membrane that could become the basis for improvements in tissue engineering. She was presented the award during the Biomedical Engineering Society’s annual meeting and conference, Oct 7-10 in Tampa, Fla.

Mazzocchi was recognized with the society’s top student award for the abstract titled, “Fabrication and characterization of ultrathin transparent glass membranes for cell culture.”

“We were growing human umbilical vein endothelial cells, and this work was more to characterize the membranes to show if the cells behave differently on the new membranes compared to surfaces that cells are normally grown on,” said Mazzocchi, a fifth-year biomedical engineering student in RIT’s Kate Gleason College of Engineering. “A lot of our research has been on cell behavior. This was more focused on how does the membrane itself affect cells?”

For the study, Mazzocchi and the research team in the engineering college’s Gaborski NanoBio Device Laboratory compared the new ultra thin transparent glass membrane—a permeable and transparent structure—with traditional cell culture plastic. They focused on proliferation rates—how fast cells grow and divide based on current scientific standards—to determine if the membrane impeded or fully supported cell growth. They also assessed how cells spread on the new membrane to examine their compatibility with the new membrane’s porous structure.

“We found for the proliferation and for the spreading, there was no difference between the membranes and the traditional culture plastic. The culture spreading doesn’t change with the porous membranes,” said Mazzocchi, who is originally from Erie, Pa. She added that this type of confirmation assures researchers that the membranes would not affect outcomes of future experiments.

Another outcome of the work resulted in observing how the cells spread, and the team noticed that the cells were ‘crawling’ through the membrane because of its porosity, and it was visible because of the transparent nature of the medium.

“It was an interesting thing with those membranes, because cells do ‘crawl.’ But because of the low surface area of the membrane, you have them crawling through. So, that was a novel thing,” she added. “There are other membranes on the market that you can buy called track-etch membranes, but they are hard to see through. With ours, you see both of the cell layers growing and how they are behaving compared to others where you cannot observe or study them that way. This work is taking what already exists and making it into a better version.”

The new membrane could become the foundation or platform for further cell culturing to advance tissue engineering and organ-on-a-chip technology, two areas Mazzocchi is interested in pursuing after graduating from RIT this spring.

“This is getting big in biomedical engineering, and it is tech mimicking your organs using small devices. I don’t think the organ-on-a-chip technology is perfected yet, but that is where this work comes into play. By having this technology, it allows us to separate different cell lines, to integrate them into better systems that are more accurate and to be able do experiments on these chips, rather than animals or human subjects. That in itself is world-changing.”

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