Fort Lewis College has been awarded a four-year, $390,000 National Institutes of Health grant to develop microfluidic chip devices to investigate porous silicon membranes as viable designs for mimicking lung physiology. Professor of Biology David Blake, lead investigator for the grant, has been working on these “lung-on-a-chip” (LOAC) or “tissue chip” devices since 2009 but utilizing porous silicon is new terrain—and the results are promising.
“Porous silicon has not been used before in these tissue chips, but the manufactured membranes and scaffolding are quite biocompatible,” says Blake. “The cells stick to it and remain viable for at least two weeks.”
The LOAC device, which is about as big as a quarter, is a three-dimensional replica of an alveolus, the structure where gas exchange happens at the terminal end of a human’s lung. With the help of FLC undergraduate students, Blake cultures epithelial cells (the outer alveolar surface area that takes in oxygen) and endothelial cells (the lining of small pulmonary capillaries) that are spatially segregated on the porous silicon membrane to create the LOAC.
Lung-on-a-chip models are not novel, but mimicking the alveoli structure with silicon rather than other polymer-based materials has been a research breakthrough. With the NIH funding, Blake expects the project to significantly advance the relevance of synthetic materials in biomedical research.
"This model could be used to translate bench-to-bedside research. If a lab scientist finds an effective drug or therapeutic in the lab, we can test the compound in the LOAC device rather than in an animal model that ultimately has a different structure than a human."
“In terms of biology research, science has tried to move away from animal models because they don’t translate,” says Blake. “This model could be used to translate bench-to-bedside research. If a lab scientist finds an effective drug or therapeutic in the lab, we can test the compound in the LOAC device rather than in an animal model that ultimately has a different structure than a human.”
Blake specializes in pulmonary toxicology research, looking at the effects of smoking or vaping on the lungs, specifically in someone who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). With the LOAC devices, Blake can carry out complex experiments to see how lung alveoli change due to chronic disease and infection.
This summer, Blake has two students in the lab with him. Senior Biology majors Ethan Anderson and Emma Leary are working on two separate research projects involving the LOAC device and on a second project focused on an infectious pathogen called Leishmaniasis.
"Up to this point I've done 'cookbook science,' when you're in a lab class and they hand you a protocol and step-by-step process of what you should do," says Anderson. "This is the first real science I've done, it's brand-new science, and it's really fun to be a part of."
Through Blake, Anderson and Leary will connect with other researchers at the University of New Mexico, visiting Albuquerque to check out their confocal microscope. The team is also collaborating with researchers at CU Boulder.
“This interdisciplinary project would not have been funded without the significant help and contributions of Drs. Jeff Jessing and Yiyan Li in the FLC Physics and Engineering Department as well as pulmonary and microscopy experts Drs. Campen, Paffett, and Dragavon at the University of New Mexico and CU Boulder,” says Blake.
National Institute of General Medical Sciences Support of Competitive Research (SCORE) SC3 grants are highly competitive and typically allocated to institutions serving students underrepresented in biomedical research. FLC has received a SCORE grant only one other time.
“This definitely shows that FLC is competitive in regard to NIH research grants,” says Blake. “This grant allows us to continue moving forward building functional funding continuity as an institution.”