A group of UAB engineers has gained wide recognition in recent years for its work on building freezers that can maintain extreme cold temperatures in space. Now that same group has refined its focus to tackle a new challenge— designing a rapid-freeze unit that could potentially influence the types of science performed in space.
The Engineering and Innovative Technology Development (EITD) team in the School of Engineering recently received a pair of new contracts from NASA worth a combined $3.6 million to develop rapid-freeze technology and hardware for use on missions to the International Space Station (ISS).
The contract seems like a natural fit for EITD, which has worked with NASA for more than 10 years developing the high-tech cold-stowage units MERLIN, GLACIER, and Polar—all of which are currently in use aboard the ISS. However, EITD director Lee Moradi, Ph.D., says the ability to rapidly freeze biological samples requires a fundamentally different approach, and UAB was one of several “high-profile” research entities that submitted proposals.
“The capability to rapidly freeze biological samples on the ISS to preserve the microgravity effects has long been a priority,” Moradi explains. “To freeze a biological sample in normal, ground-based research, a scientist will dip the sample into liquid nitrogen. They don’t maintain liquid nitrogen stores on the ISS, so the intent of the NRA (NASA Research Announcement) was to find a safe, efficient alternative.”
As part of its Frontiers of Cardiovascular Tissue Engineering Seminar Series, the Department of Biomedical Engineering welcomed Victor J. Dzau, M.D., President of the National Academy of Medicine (NAM) and an expert in cardiovascular medicine and genetics on Friday.
Dzau presented a lecture titled “Rebuilding the Failing Heart: Bypassing Roadblocks in Cardiac Cell Therapy, in which he discussed the current state of the field and acknowledged the potential for breakthroughs at UAB under the leadership of BME chair Jay Zhang, M.D., Ph.D.
Dzau also conducted a question-and-answer session following the lecture.
Upcoming SpaceX Launch to Take UAB Hardware to the Space Station
On Friday, representatives from the group that designed those units will attend a ceremony at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, to accept a pair of NASA Group Achievement Awards—one for the team's work on the Polar project, and another for its role with the ISS Cold Stowage team for providing “exceptional hardware development, engineering, integration, and operation of cold stowage assets supporting research utilization of the International Space Station.”
The awards put the spotlight on UAB's Engineering and Innovative Technology Development (EITD) team, a little-known but highly accomplished part of the School of Engineering that has been producing high-quality equipment for space-related research for more than a decade.
“These awards are a well-deserved testament to the excellent work done by Dr. Lee Moradi and the EITD team over an extended period of time,” says Iwan Alexander, Ph.D., dean of the UAB School of Engineering. “This is a reflection of the team’s ability to not only design and build high-quality specialized hardware, but also to provide the critical support necessary to the success of space-flight experiments.”
Biomedical Engineering Department Chair Jianyi “Jay” Zhang, M.D., Ph.D., brought his expertise to UAB to fix hearts.
His dream — and the dream of other heart experts at major research universities around the world — is creating new tissue that can replace or protect damaged muscle after a heart attack.
Zhang already took a major step toward that goal when he and colleagues protected pigs from post-heart attack heart failure. As described in his 2014 Cell Stem Cell paper, the researchers placed a mat of fibrin over the area where muscle had died and injected three types of cardiovascular cells underneath the mat. This is somewhat akin to starting new lawn by scattering grass seeds beneath a protective layer of hay. The fibrin helped some of the injected cells survive and grow, and they in turn protected the heart from further damage.
While Zhang’s colleague at the University of Paris Descartes, Philippe Menasché, M.D., Ph.D., is currently testing this approach on five patients, Zhang is launching a new effort in biomedical engineering to improve heart repair, supported by a new $3 million grant from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute of the NIH.
Instead of injecting individual cells and hoping they take seed, Zhang plans to robotically build and grow a mat of heart tissue made from individual cells, using a custom 3-D printer. Surgeons will then place this custom mat of living cells over the dead, infarcted tissue of the heart, somewhat akin to starting a new lawn by laying sod.
“We will make our own printer, using machinery experts, robotic experts and computer science experts,” said Zhang, who last fall became the new leader of UAB Biomedical Engineering, a joint department of the UAB School of Medicine and School of Engineering. “A robotic arm will pick up cells of various types from petri dishes and place them onto fine needles that are a few microns apart. The growing cells fuse after three to seven days, and the shape is based on the needles.”
“Then we can lift off the tissue,” Zhang said. “It is scaffold-less tissue engineering. I already have two Ph.D. students on the project.”