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Setton lab awarded $1.2M NIH grant

Millions of Americans suffer from neck and back pain each year, which can be debilitating and excruciating. The condition is often caused by the bulging and breakdown of the intervertebral discs, which support the spine and provide flexibility, motion and weight bearing during daily activities and movement.

Setton’s lab will develop protein-hydrogel hybrids that mimic a healthy intervertebral disc environment to promote increased pulposus cell survival and biosynthesis for self-repair.
Aided by a $1.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, a team from Washington University in St. Louis will continue its work studying the nucleus pulposus cells that comprise human intervertebral discs in an effort to keep them healthy and functional. The research has potential to lead to intervertebral disc regeneration.

Lori Setton, the Lucy and Stanley Lopata Distinguished Professor of Biomedical Engineering in the School of Engineering & Applied Science, will try to prolong survival of the nuclear pulposus cells with the help of designer biomaterials. Working with Don Elbert, associate professor of biomedical engineering, Setton’s lab will develop protein-hydrogel hybrids that mimic a healthy intervertebral disc environment to promote increased pulposus cell survival and biosynthesis for self-repair.

Setton’s lab also will examine certain proteins that play a role in intervertebral disc health. Her prior work identifies the presence of some proteins in discs of younger people that seem to disappear with aging and pathology, including specific types of laminin. Setton and Elbert will work to identify ways to incorporate these laminin proteins into model hydrogel systems to construct artificial tissue mimics, creating cellular environments to support the health intervertebral disc cell.

The researchers also will attempt to identify shorter protein sequences that can replicate the function of the more complex, native laminin proteins. Using novel coupling chemistry, Setton and Elbert will optimize and streamline material design to reverse the pathological cells towards healthy, biosynthetically active cell types. This controlled environment offers another benefit: the researchers hope to eliminate the use of supplemental nutrients in tissue engineering. Similar projects use these supplements, but they can often diffuse to locations other than the disc, where they have the potential to cause more harm than good. The ultimate goal will be an injectable protein-hydrogel material that can be used to deliver biosynthetically active cells to where they are needed in the disc.

This project will receive additional support from the National Institute for Arthritis, Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS).

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The School of Engineering & Applied Science at Washington University in St. Louis focuses intellectual efforts through a new convergence paradigm and builds on strengths, particularly as applied to medicine and health, energy and environment, entrepreneurship and security. With 88 tenured/tenure-track and 40 additional full-time faculty, 1,300 undergraduate students, more than 900 graduate students and more than 23,000 alumni, we are working to leverage our partnerships with academic and industry partners — across disciplines and across the world — to contribute to solving the greatest global challenges of the 21st century.

Improving Quality of Life

WashU researchers hope to eliminate the use of supplemental nutrients in tissue engineering.