A Tale of Two Labs

February 1, 1998

Judith Zwolak

One laboratory in the Department of Biomedical Engineering looks like an average computer lab. Another lab looks like a typical molecular biology and material sciences research area. Together, however, they make a unique resource for studying such issues as how bones repair themselves, how to improve lung function in premature infants and how artificial implants such as heart valves or hip implants react with human tissue.

The new Computational Tissue Mechanics Laboratory and the Cell and Tissue Engineering Laboratory, established last July, are "companion laboratories," says Richard Hart, professor and chair of biomedical engineering. The labs will work in tandem, Hart adds, with computer research informing the experimental studies, which, in turn, can have implications for further computer analysis and experimental research.

"Our department has a history of being quite well known for computational studies in biomechanics and bioelectronics," Hart says. "These labs will allow us to use this experience in the field of tissue engineering, which essentially combines molecular biology approaches with research on materials."

A grant from the Whitaker Foundation, a private sponsor of biomedical engineering research and education, awarded Tulane $1 million to develop the computational laboratory. The department established the experimental laboratory last summer with a grant from the Louisiana Board of Regents.

The Whitaker grant will fund the hiring of new faculty and staff members and support postdoctoral scholars and graduate research assistants. Also funded through the grant are five new courses for upper-level undergraduates and graduate students.

"These classes will be unique in that they will give our students a strong background in both experimental and computational techniques," Hart says. Research in the labs will include Hart's investigations on bone structure. "Bone is not boring and dead as some people think," he says. "Bone's fascination to an engineer is as a living structural material that can repair itself after it breaks and can change size depending upon exercise and weightlessness, for example. And all of that action is at the cellular level. We need to do both cellular-level experiments and computer simulations to study bone tissue."

Co-directing the computational lab is Donald Gaver, associate professor of biomedical engineering. One of Gaver's research projects is studying the effects of fluids flowing over lung cells. Of particular interest is surfactant, a biological chemical in the lung that reduces surface tension and allows the lung to inflate properly.

Premature infants often lack adequate amounts of surfactant and can have trouble breathing. Research on how surfactant works can lead to developing surfactant substitutes and treatments for premature infants. Kay C. Dee, assistant professor of biomedical engineering and director of the Cell and Tissue Engineering Laboratory, works with both Hart and Gaver on their projects and also has an interest in the interface between man-made materials and living tissue cells.

Biomedical engineering faculty members Natalia Trayanova, associate professor, and Kirk Bundy, professor, are also involved in research in the Cell and Tissue Engineering Laboratory. Hart says the new tissue engineering laboratories will emphasize a collaborative environment with industry and foster interdisciplinary research between different academic areas such as mathematics, chemical engineering, nephrology, orthopaedics, and ophthalmology.

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