Chemical engineering matters of the heart (Day 263)

Chemical engineering matters of the heart (Day 263)

14th February 2015

I would have to say that I am a bit of a cynic when it comes to Valentine’s Day, whilst it is important that we show our love for those in our lives, I wonder if we need a set day of the year to do so.

However, in view of the occasion, today I thought I’d go down a different route.

Our heart however is a vital organ and when it goes wrong, the consequences can be drastic.

Chemical engineers have also been involved in this struggle, with a particular focus on the materials and flow involved in understanding how blood circulates through the heart.

And so today, I am using today’s blog to highlight the work of a few chemical engineers who are focused on making our hearts beat.

Discussing blood is not a new feature for the blog, in fact back in December I wrote a story about ‘Blood control’ and a gel that can stop bleeding and heal serious wounds. But today, I'm going to focus specifically on the heart itself.

Photo Credit | John Hopkins University Professor Sharon Gerecht

Professor Sharon Gerecht, an associate professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at John Hopkins University, US, has been working to identify ways to control the fate of stem cells, which are the most fundamental building blocks of tissues and organs.

Sharon’s research group is employing engineering fundamentals to study basic questions in vascular stem cell biology, and then using these findings for tissue repair and regeneration.

Rare endothelial progenitor cells (used to generate the lining of blood vessels) circulate in the bloodstream and can be triggered to home in on injured or diseased sites, such as ischemia (restriction of blood flow in tissues), to form blood vessels.

Sharon and her team are studying the induction and functionality of blood vessel cell derivatives from stem cells, and their assembly into functional vascular networks. Sharon has used them to form complex blood vessels – where she grew vessels in a synthetic material for the first time – that could be used to feed organs like the heart.

Photo Credit | University of BathDr Marianne Ellis

Elsewhere, Dr Marianne Ellis directs the Biochemical and Biomedical Engineering group (within the Department of Chemical Engineering) at the University of Bath, UK. Marianne leads a multi-disciplinary research group which collaborates with many people both in the UK and internationally, for example the Bristol Heart Institute.

The group works to develop methods of growing human cells and tissues outside the body in order to repair or replace any that are damaged.

Following implantation, the new tissues should become integrated into the body and perform their natural functions.

Marianne's research is focused on the regeneration of cartilage, bone and blood vessels, through cultivating the composite cells on both natural and synthetic polymers.

As you can see, there is a lot of heart involved in chemical engineering, whether it is in the work itself or just through the dedication of the engineer.

Being a chemical engineer involves a high level of commitment to the profession (as I am sure both the engineers featured in today’s blog can attest); the long hours and travel involved can make it hard to maintain relationships.

So today, as it is Valentine’s Day, I’d like to say a special thank you to all of our partners and the people in our lives that stand by us, both through bad times and good.