Chip-based Models Mimic Organs to Advance Understanding of Sickle Cell Disease

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by Magdalena Kegel |

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Researchers at Mississippi State University (MSU) are using tiny polymer chips to build models to help them better understand sickle cell disease.

Research on the models, which can also be used to study heart disease, might lead  identification of molecules or factors that new treatments can target to lessen organ damage caused by the disease.

“With our microfluidic-based models, we can look at what’s happening in a system, isolate a certain portion of that, and then start to ask questions on a more focused scale,” Renita Horton, assistant professor of agricultural and biological engineering, said in a news release.

Horton established MSU’s Cardiovascular Tissue Engineering Laboratory roughly a year ago, after completing a postdoctoral training at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering.

With the help of six undergraduate and master’s students, she is now pursuing research into what scientists call biomimetic microsystems. These types of models, which can mimic characteristics of specific organs, can help explain how an organ reacts in various situations.

Such models are used to test ideas or compounds without having to expose animals or humans to the risks of experimental testing. Horton’s team is now growing heart cells to mimic conditions in sickle cell disease and other heart problems.

More specifically, she wants to explore factors that cause vaso-occlusion, which occur when sickled red blood cells clump together and block vessels.

“If you have a positive or an adverse effect in the chip, this may suggest that a similar effect will likely be observed in a human or in animals,” said Horton. “That’s a huge benefit to some of the in vitro work we’re trying to do here. The ultimate goal is finding solutions to help the patient. We want to use this not just to make observations, but to create something that’s practical.”

Horton’s interest in sickle cell disease is personal; her older sister died of complications from sickle cell, motivating Horton to find solutions for others. Recently, she’s begun collaborating with researchers at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, which has a clinic for sickle cell patients.

“In Mississippi, cardiovascular disease is a huge problem,” said Horton. “If we can understand the factors that contribute to the disease, we may be able to identify strategies to better treat, if not prevent, the disease. Our aim is to create models that can generate results which can reliably show what one might observe in the body during disease.”