Healing help for spinal injuries (Day 122)

Spinal injectionWorking as part of a multi-disciplinary team is a common feature of the modern chemical engineer.

One of the latest projects I’ve come across involves chemical engineers working alongside a neurosurgeon, materials scientist, biologist, and molecular physiologist.

One of the chemical engineers is a specialist in polymers called Andrew Spakowitz, an associate professor of chemical engineering [and much more], at Stanford University.

Andrew Spakowitz

Andrew Spakowitz, associate professor of chemical engineering

Andrew and his colleagues are working on a project to reduce the trauma of injections and improve the healing of tissues for spinal injuries and treatments in other highly sensitive parts of the body.

Most people are aware of the side effects of using cocktails of drugs to treat cancers.

The same principle applies for injections – they can be turbulent and sometimes deadly for the cells injected to heal the injuries.

The act of being squirted through a thin needle into the site of an injury jostles the delicate cells against each other and against the needle walls. Then, once in the site of injury, they face a biological war zone of chemicals.

In highly sensitive areas of the body, like the spinal cord, it is a major challenge.

One of the answers is to create ‘chemical padding’ in the form of polymers that bathe and protect the cells but also flow smoothly through thin needles. This is where Andrew has played an important role – he’s an expert in predicting polymer structures.

Project leader, Sarah Heilshorn, an associate professor of materials science and engineering, and [by courtesy] an associate professor of chemical engineering and bioengineering, equates these gel-like polymers to ketchup.

She says they are pretty thick, but when you bang on the bottle the sauce flows smoothly through the neck, then firms back up on the plate – a process she calls self-healing.

Her goal is to develop a polymer that supports the cells when they are loaded in a syringe, but then flows freely through the needle, padding and protecting the cells, then firming up quickly when it reaches the site of injury. “We don’t want the cells to flow away,” she says.

The researchers see their technology as a platform that could be applied to a variety of cell types and injuries. Some polymers need to be firmer to support cells that like a harder environment. Others need to be softer, or contain different biochemical signals.

The biochemicals contained within the gel also matter. The researchers are putting in different biochemical signals that they hope the cells will respond to. Sarah calls it ‘a biochemical home for the cells inside that lesion site’.

Some excellent work once again from our professional colleagues in the USA.

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Are you a chemical engineer working in a multi-disciplinary team? Please share your story.

One thought on “Healing help for spinal injuries (Day 122)

  1. Chemical engineers working in multi-disciplinary teams will be a major in the future and allow chemical engineers to be influential in making great strides to impact the lot of all sections of humankind.

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