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Lee Awarded UMass President’s Grant

Jae-Hwang Lee

Jae-Hwang Lee

Professor Jae-Hwang Lee of the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering (MIE) Department has received a $125,000 grant from the University of Massachusetts President’s Office to support his project on “Bio-mechanics for Disease Diagnosis and Cell Engineering.” Lee is leading the project with UMass Professor Alfred Crosby, Polymer Science and Engineering Department, to create an interdisciplinary research program at UMass Amherst, Lowell, and Worcester and establish a world-class research center that unites the biomechanical characterization capabilities on all three campuses.

“The study on mechanical responses of biomaterials, at the levels of individual cells and organs, will provide opportunities for progress in disease diagnosis, generation of new methods in cell engineering, and profound understanding in traumatic injuries,” said the researchers.

An article by the UMass Amherst News Office said that 14 campus faculty and staff members at UMass Amherst are sharing more than $349,000 in grants from the President’s Office for science and technology research, as well as arts and humanities/social sciences projects. The awards are part of a package of $1,090,500 in grants announced on June 21 by UMass President Marty Meehan.

“With these grants, we are investing in the vision, expertise, and commitment of faculty members from all five UMass campuses,” Meehan said. “We are supporting distinguished scholars who enrich us through their diligent pursuits.”

Other participating researchers  in Lee’s project include: Maureen Lynch of MIE and Jungwoo Lee of the Chemical Engineering Department at UMass Amherst; Alireza Amirkhizi and Jeffrey Moore of UMass Lowell; and John Harris of the UMass Medical School.

Here is the crucial issue being addressed by this research team. Multi-scale quantitative measurement of biophysical properties in clinical samples and internal tissues is imperative for biomechanical markers that can capture subtle mechanical changes associated with abnormal transformation. According to the UMass researchers, a growing body of evidence has demonstrated tight connections between mechanical characteristics of cells/tissues and pathologic conditions. However, existing methodologies have limited sensitivity for measuring mechanical properties of target cells/tissues in a quantitative, reproducible manner. In particular, in vivo mechanical measuring presents critical challenges because “surrounding tissues damp mechanical agitation” and, as one result, significantly reduce force resolution.

According to the researchers, “The ultimate goal of the proposed research activities is the establishment of a nation-wide research center focusing on strain-rate-dependent biomechanical research related to civilian and military applications. With regard to research, the final outcomes will be clinical devices and methods based on the planned transformative research.”

The interdisciplinary project will generate three new research groups to target three biological systems for study and analysis.

The Cell Research Group (CRG) will address the continuing issue of metastasis, which causes more than 90 percent of cancer-related deaths, while remaining one of the most poorly understood aspects in carcinogenesis. The researchers pointed out how recent studies have demonstrated that cancer cells carrying high metastatic potential exhibit enhanced deformability required for squeezing the cellular body through the fibrous extracellular matrix and endothelial junctions to enter and exit blood circulation.

“Thus, mechanical phenotyping of individual cancer cell holds unique potential to advance diagnosis of metastasis along with existing biochemical and genetic screening,” as the researchers noted. “Yet, distinguishing subtle mechanical differences between normal and malignant cells has been technically limited. The CRG will address this challenge by developing strain-rate-dependent single cell physical characterization techniques.”

The Skin Research Group (SRG) is being formed to target skin cancer, the most prevalent malignancy worldwide, affecting one in five Americans and resulting in over 8,500 new diagnoses every day. While many of these tumors can be cured by surgical removal, as the researchers said, “skin tumors are like icebergs, with much of their bulk residing below the surface and reaching beyond their visible borders.” So curative surgeries either require taking a large amount of normal-appearing skin or staged excisions that are time-consuming and costly.

“The SRG hypothesizes that the diagnosis of skin cancer could be significantly improved with minimally invasive techniques that quantify tissue stiffness, and thus tumor extension,” said the researchers. “With improved diagnostic measures, we can decrease morbidity from unnecessary biopsies as well as from unnecessary removal of normal skin surrounding the tumor.”

The Bone Research Group (BRG) will study the third biological system being targeted by the research. By 2020, half of all Americans over age 50 will have weak bones, according to the NIH. In fact, approximately one in two women and up to one in four men of age 50 and older will break bones due to osteoporosis. Currently, the gold standard for assessing osteoporosis, and by extension skeletal strength, is Dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DXA). However, DXA only predicts about 50 percent of actual fractures, indicating that a more predictive tool of skeletal strength is needed clinically.

According to the research team, “To address this problem, the BRG will focus on developing a non-invasive approach for measuring skeletal mechanical properties for use in predicting osteoporotic fractures as well as monitoring fracture healing.” (July 2016)