Students connect engineering and biology to impact health care

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Chris Coe

Marcela Mireles, left, and Henry Chung are two post-doctoral researchers in Thomas Gaborski’s NanoBio Device Lab. The team is fabricating nano-membranes for cell filtration with Gaborski, center, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering.

Thomas Gaborski’s NanoBio Device Lab is where engineering and biology intersect.

The assistant professor of biomedical engineering is developing new nano-membranes, flexible structures made of porous materials for more precise cell filtration and analysis to detect diseases.

In his lab are undergraduate, co-op, master’s and doctoral-level student-researchers helping to improve applications. And the division of labor is led by two post-doctoral researchers, Marcela Mireles and Henry Chung, skilled in microfabrication and materials science as well as cell biology and microfluidic devices, respectively. They combine the skills necessary for biomedical engineers today and are an example of how RIT’s students are being prepared for the field that is expected to transform health care in the United States.

“We are building membranes that will not only solve the needs of researchers studying the basic biology of barriers, but also scientists and engineers investigating drug discovery and stem cell differentiation,” said Gaborski. “Half of this work is about the development of membrane technology, and the other half is about developing better in vitro barrier model systems.”

Membrane technologies are evolving. Gaborski’s team is taking a dual approach in that evolution, testing and improving the nanofabrication process, and at the same time, evaluating the impact of the new nano-porous membranes—thinner than a human hair—on applications such as hemodialysis, which is filtering blood to remove waste products.

Mireles refines the fabrication of the new nano-porous membranes, controlling pore size and distribution across the membrane.

“Basically this is a coffee filter that is very specialized,” she said. “The porous structure of a coffee filter retains coffee grains, but allows the coffee molecules to diffuse into the water. Our membrane is a very specialized filter. The fabrication process can sound like a simple task, but achieving nanoscale pores is not trivial, and it gets complicated very quickly.”

Both teams in the lab are addressing the complication of determining the best materials to use, developing a versatile fabrication process to manufacture the membranes and integrating the membranes into other microfluidic devices for broader applications that will eventually be used by patients, clinicians and researchers.

Chung takes a prototype nano-porous membrane constructed by Mireles’ team and integrates it into a microfluidic system to study how cells can grow on the membrane and how the membrane can be used to filter biological samples.

“Dialysis technology has not changed much over the decades,” said Chung. “Our membrane is more permeable. Our system, in the form of a small, wearable format, actually allows continued filtrations of toxins.”

Patients in hemodialysis often retain water, and while undergoing dialysis, that water is removed. Sudden removal can sometimes be harmful. The new membrane could be part of a wearable system to help patients maintain proper water balance.

“Imagine a wearable device that goes anywhere with a patient. They may not need to go to dialysis centers anymore,” Chung said. “This can improve lives. That is one of our long term goals.”

Tying engineering and biology together is inherent in Gaborski’s lab and an example of how RIT’s biomedical engineering department prepares its students for co-ops and eventually for careers. The program takes an interdisciplinary approach. Gaborski’s student-researchers are proficient in clean room protocols yet are able to keep biology in context, successfully engineering solutions for relevant healthcare problems.

In the past, the term “biomedical engineer” was used to describe any professional applying engineering and biomedical skills in the health care science.

“Are they related? Yes, because if you want someone to do a good job designing an instrument or a device that is going to interact with a human, they better have the basic science knowledge and understanding of engineering principles to be able to do a good job, that is how they are tied together,” said Steven Day, department head of biomedical engineering. “We are calling them biomedical engineers because they know the basic, fundamental science to be able to engineer applications.”

The nano-porous membrane is versatile and will be used for applications such as filtration, cell cultures or even in sequencing DNA. Growing cells on the membranes is a means to study diseases, said Chung.

“If we can somehow find a good physiological model in vitro, then we may not have to use animals for research,” he said. “Eventually we are going to make these breakthroughs because of this multi-disciplinary work. It is disruptive technology.”