Cells in human bodies can adapt to the various properties in different environments, such as in healthy, diseased, stiff or flexible tissue, and remember those adaptations when they move to a new environment. 

Amit Pathak, associate professor of mechanical engineering & materials science in the McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, plans to take a closer look at how these cells use this priming and memory to respond to new tissues with a three-year, $419,750 grant from the National Science Foundation. The results will offer new information on mechanical memory, which can provide insight into such processes as tumor metastasis, human development and wound healing.

The work builds on previous mechanobiology research in Pathak’s lab in which he found that cells that retain memory about the mechanical properties of a previous environment are less adaptable to their new environment. In the new research, Pathak will use living cells as well as various models to study how cells primed in a stiff environment move compared with cells primed in a softer environment as well as how this transfer to a new extracellular matrix is regulated by remodeling of collagen fibers.

To do so, Pathak and his team will create a hybrid 3D scaffold on which they can prime the cells, then allow them to move to other matrices with varying properties using imaging to determine how they move and how long the moves take. They also plan to alter proteins in cells to change their memory as well as develop computer and mathematical models to better understand the process.

Pathak said the devices and models developed through this research will provide new tools for researchers to study the biomechanical responses of cells and cell matrix memory across mechanically different environments.

In addition, Pathak plans to present a mechanobiology lecture series to area science teachers and create an experiment they can use in their classrooms. In addition, he will teach the methods and concepts from the research in his classes, as well as to undergraduate students in the Washington University Summer Engineering Fellowship (WUSEF) program.

The McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis promotes independent inquiry and education with an emphasis on scientific excellence, innovation and collaboration without boundaries. McKelvey Engineering has top-ranked research and graduate programs across departments, particularly in biomedical engineering, environmental engineering and computing, and has one of the most selective undergraduate programs in the country. With 140 full-time faculty, 1,387 undergraduate students, 1,448 graduate students and 21,000 living alumni, we are working to solve some of society’s greatest challenges; to prepare students to become leaders and innovate throughout their careers; and to be a catalyst of economic development for the St. Louis region and beyond.

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