Results could lead to new paradigms in the understanding of mechano-biology.

IH has awarded $2.5 million to a team led by Boston University biomedical engineer Bela Suki, Ph.D., to study the role of physical forces on cell function. The grant spans five years, and the goal is to understand the roles of these forces in diseases like atherosclerosis, neurodegenerative diseases, metabolic disorders, and cancer as well as aging.

“We know that physical force plays a role in vascular disease and other ailments,” Dr. Suki says. “Our research is aimed at understanding the scope of this impact using forces that more closely mimic those in nature.”

The group will lay cells on an elastic membrane and stretch them using a new method that randomly alters the magnitude and timing of each stretch as would happen naturally and then study the effect on the cells’ function.

Researchers have already documented a correlation between repeated stretching at regular intervals and altered cell function. Dr. Suki’s preliminary research on lung cells indicates a more dramatic cellular response when the stretching is varied. The team observed significant changes in the secretion of a vital molecule that facilitates gas exchange in the lung when the new method was used.

Dr. Suki plans to use the NIH grant to expand the research to include vascular endothelial and smooth muscle cells as well as skin fibroblasts. If the scientists observe effects on these cells similar to what they have seen in the lung cells, they may have to rethink their approach to mechano-biology, according to Dr. Suki.

Specifically, the investigators will look into the effect of variable stretching on transcription, translation, and secretion of molecules like cytokines, enzymes, and proteins, and how it influences basic cellular functions like division, growth, and death. They will attempt to determine if there are universal mechanisms that govern cellular function among different organ systems.

“Uncovering how cells deal with such physiological variability may help us understand how cells work in real living tissue as well as the pathogenesis of several major diseases,” according to Dr. Suki.

The grant is one of 42 awarded as part of the NIH’s new Transformative R01 program, established under the NIH Roadmap for Medical Research. It backs exceptionally innovative, high-risk, original, and/or unconventional projects.

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