Three professors receive $25,000 SEAS Collaboration Initiation Grants

Hong Chen, Yasutaka Furukawa and Spencer Lake, all assistant professors in the School of Engineering & Applied Science, have received $25,000 grants from the school's Collaboration Initiation Grants program.

The program, in its second year, awards one-year grants to projects that facilitate collaborative research outside and within Engineering departments for untenured tenure-track faculty. The grants are designed to serve as a platform for faculty to apply for larger, interdisciplinary grants, to create a more synergistic project than could be achieved by one researcher in one discipline, and to demonstrate the potential to sustain the collaboration and obtain external funding. Each awardee receives $20,000 from the school and must have $5,000 in cost-sharing from their department or collaborators.

Chen, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, will use the funding to develop an MRI-guided technique, called MRI-FUSIN, to deliver gold nanoparticles through the nasal passages to boost radiotherapy of brain tumors. Her collaborators are Pratim Biswas, the Stanley and Lucy Lopata Professor and chair of the Department of Energy, Environmental & Chemical Engineering; and Buck Rogers, professor of radiation oncology at the School of Medicine.

Radiotherapy is a commonly used treatment in brain cancer. However, brain cancer cells are resistant to ionizing radiation causing the treatment to fail. Researchers such as Chen are working to increase the radiosensitivity of brain tumors to improve treatment outcomes using gold nanoparticles. However, the blood-brain barrier and the blood-tumor barrier restrict entry of most therapies to the brain. Chen proposes a technique that would deliver the gold nanoparticles, which can sensitize cancer cells to radiation, to the brain using an MRI-guided focused ultrasound.

Furukawa, assistant professor of computer science & engineering, will use the funding to transform standard ultrasound images from routine clinical care into 3-D data of moving heart models using image-processing techniques. His collaborators are Pirooz Eghtesady, MD, the Emerson Chair in and chief of Pediatric Cardiothoracic Surgery and co-director of the Heart Center at St. Louis Children's Hospital; and Gary Skolnick, senior statistical data analyst in the Division of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery in the Department of Surgery, both at the School of Medicine.

Together, the team will develop a solution to develop 3-D moving heart models using image processing techniques from ultrasound imaging taken from children with congenital heart disease. To prepare for surgery, surgeons rely on a 3-D model of the child's heart that is made with CT or MRI imaging techniques, which expose the children to radiation or sedation and are expensive. Standard ultrasound images are inexpensive, harmless and accessible worldwide and present a safe and affordable option for physicians to get 3-D electrocardiographic data. The team also will use machine-learning techniques to create the model.

Lake, assistant professor of mechanical engineering & materials science, will develop an imaging technique that allows for real-time evaluation of the microstructure of ligaments in the elbow. His collaborators are Viktor Gruev, associate professor of computer science & engineering; and Matthew V. Smith, MD, assistant professor of orthopaedic surgery at the School of Medicine.

The ulnar collateral ligament in the elbow has seen a dramatic rise in injuries, particularly among athletes such as baseball players, with a 22-fold increase in reconstructive surgeries in the past 20 years. While researchers guess that the repetitive stresses on the ligament during throwing causes cumulative microtrauma to the collagen network, leading to tears and mechanical weakening, the microstructural properties of the ligament and its response to loading are unknown. Lake will work with his collaborators to develop a polarization imaging technique using reflected light to quantify collagen alignment in the ligament while in different positions. Lake says the technique has the potential to transform biomechanical evaluation of these tissues in their native environment.

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.