Researchers seek answers to cancer, diabetic wounds in controlling gene networks
Behind the pathology for a variety of painful and deadly diseases lie genes that aren’t doing their jobs.
They may be blocking the healing process for foot wounds in diabetic patients or contributing to cancer by interfering with the dying off of mutated or damaged cells.
Kelsey Beavers, a Vanderbilt University Ph.D. candidate in interdisciplinary materials science, is exploring how inserting engineering into those biological processes can lead to a healthier society. She’s working with Craig Duvall, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, developing nanotechnology that could deliver drugs for a broad range of related applications.
Beavers and Duvall work with microRNA, describing it as a master puppeteer of gene networks – a regulatory molecule that, if overactive, can be devastating for patients because it may turn off genes vital to maintaining healthy tissue. Regulating overactive microRNA could result in faster skin healing or regeneration of damaged bones, kidneys and livers.
“With almost every disease you can think of, there’s some component of dysregulation of gene expression,” Duvall said.
In the case of diabetic foot wounds, Duvall and Beavers already have made strides toward demonstrating that turning on a transcription factor that controls a whole group of genes – rather than using a single protein growth factor — will result in more robust healing.
Also important is developing an extremely targeted drug carrier, Beavers said.
“We want to be sure we’re only regulating microRNAs in the diseased tissue,” she said. “By controlling the makeup of the nanoparticle that delivers the drug, we can time our delivery, too. Maybe we only want to knock out the microRNA for a certain length of time.”
Beavers, who received her undergraduate degree from Georgia Tech, said she chose Vanderbilt because she could design her own interdisciplinary course of study in materials science, focusing on nanomaterials. She is co-mentored by Sharon Weiss, associate professor of electrical engineering.
“Materials science is a fundamental part of almost any engineering discipline out there,” she said. “I could have taken this degree and done structural work, perhaps designing a new type of concrete, or I could have worked with solar cells.
“But I really liked the human element, so the biomedical engineering aspect appealed to me. At the end of the day, you know what you’re doing could help someone.”
Heidi Hall, (615) 322-6614
On Twitter @HeidiHallTN
Posted on Friday, March 27, 2015 in cancer, diabetes, nanotechnology, Nashville, Regenerative Medicine, Vanderbilt,Biomedical Engineering, Home Features, News, Research