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Keck Foundation grant will help decode chemical reactions in the body

ANN ARBOR, Mich.— Researchers at the University of Michigan, leading an interdisciplinary team, have won a prestigious W.M. Keck Foundation grant to build microsystems that will help scientists decode the mechanisms that guide embryo and stem cell development.

Michel Maharbiz from Department of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science at U-M?s School of Engineering is the principal investigator. Other team members include Cunming Duan from the Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology of U-M?s College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, Marie Csete of Emory University and Erik Boczko of Vanderbilt University.

Each brings a unique capability to the project: Maharbiz is an engineer who will develop the microscale machines which will be tested on zebrafish embryos in Duan?s biology lab and on embryonic stem cells in Csete?s stem cell core. Boczko will design the mathematical models that will translate the ideas and results.

They will be exploring a basic question: How do cells organize and specialize to form tissues and organs? Cells in embryos organize themselves and develop perfectly almost every time, but the devices required to study the complex signals exchanged by the cells are just now becoming possible. The $1.7 million, three-year grant will fund the development of two devices that scientists hope will mimic chemical environments in the body.

The systems will consist of microscale fluidic and electrochemical devices, intracellular sensors, and feedback controls capable of chemically communicating with developing embryo and stem cell cultures. There is a gap between lab experiments and outcomes in the body that presents a pressing need in biomedical research, Maharbiz said. This research will allow scientists to reproduce the body's oxygen and chemical signals in the lab.

Currently, cell cultures grown in the lab are exposed to greater concentrations of oxygen than they are when they develop in the body, Duan said. One of the systems proposed will control oxygen levels in a way that mimics real physiological situations, Duan said.

Researchers also hope to make and test a device that allows them to simultaneously release growth signals and control the temporal and spatial concentration of those growth signals to mimic the chemical environment of the cells inside the body. In both zebrafish embryos and human embryonic stem cells, it is likely that a small set of chemical signals called morphogens plays a central role in driving proliferation, differentiation and maturation.

In the same way that the first electrical probes of the 1950s allowed scientists to create an electrical interface to neurons to unravel how neurons communicate, scientists hope these techniques will create an interface with zebrafish embryos and human embryonic stem cells in order to create models of embryo development and allow them to validate, replicate and perhaps even modify the chemical signaling underlying development of an embryo.

If successful, these technologies will radically change the way cell and embryo culture is performed, and will lead to medical research technologies that better capture the complexity of the cellular environment.

The W. M. Keck Foundation was established in 1954 by William Myron Keck, founder of The Superior Oil Company. The W.M. Keck Foundation supports pioneering discoveries in science, engineering and medical research that lay the groundwork for breakthrough discoveries and new technologies that provide far-reaching benefits for humanity by investing in people and programs that make a difference in the quality of life, now and in the future

Keck FoundationMichel MaharbizCunming DuanCollege of Engineering