Cross-Disciplinary Breakthroughs in Tissue Regeneration Project

At Stony Brook, the collaborative spirit among students is palpable, and nowhere is this more evident than in the Vertically Integrated Projects (VIP) team of faculty, undergraduate and graduate students, working together on tissue regeneration research.

The VIP Program unites undergraduates, graduate students and faculty members in multidisciplinary teams to work on long-term, real-world projects in research, design and entrepreneurship.

Two years ago, Miriam Rafailovich, distinguished professor in the Department of Materials Science and Chemical Engineering, along with Marcia Simon, professor in theDepartment of Oral Biology and Pathology in the School of Dental MedicineGurtej Singh, associate professor in the Department of Surgery in the Renaissance School of Medicineat Stony University; and Alexander Dagum, MD, chief of the Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery Division in the Renaissance School of Medicinediscussed whether it would be possible to 3D print skin tissue and posed this question to the VIP students.

The advantages of bioprinting are numerous: tissue may be printed specific to a person’s size, and it is possible to print complicated structures, yet very few organs may be completely bio printed, Rafailovich explained.

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Gurtej Singh and Marcia Simon direct an experiment with the VIP students taking notes.

The team of nearly 20 students — of which about half are undergraduates — has been enormously successful, with a research paper, contributed to by undergraduate and graduate team members, published in Experimental Dermatology in 2021 and an external grant to fund continued research. The goal is to make the 3D skin tissue marketable for human use.

The team found success with a scaffolding model designed by Shi Fu and Huiting Luo, doctoral students in the Department of Materials Science and Chemical Engineering, that achieved angiogenesis (the process by which new blood vessels form from existing ones) and anastomosis (the connection or joining of blood vessels).

Using their model, the team discovered that when 3D printed human tissue was engrafted onto a mouse, the human implanted tissue was integrated into the host tissue and blood flow between the two was successful (necessary for the survival of implanted tissue).

Combining skin tissue replete with living cells requires complex storage protocols and after implantation may lead to an immune response. In the coming year, the team is experimenting with different procedures, including the use of supercritical carbon dioxide, a safe but penetrating solvent, to gently remove the cells, while retaining the extracellular matrix chemistry and structure. 

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Graduate student Shi Fu has just completed a skin graft and is handing it to Dr. Rachel Brownlee, while the other VIP students observe.

The goal is to create a final product, Fu explained, that will be a skin substitute available for purchase in stores that will act like a large bandage but will promote significantly faster healing. This is especially important for soldiers in the battlefield or firefighters, who may experience significant skin damage in the field and would benefit from such an invention that may be easily carried and that will promote faster healing.

Undergraduate student Divleen Singh is a Scholars for Medicine student, and her involvement with the VIP team has influenced her future goals. “I’ve realized how this research has direct applications on what plastic surgeons can do, and I’m interested in seeing the effects of different skin care treatments like retinols or retinoic acid derivatives on promoting angiogenesis. This is a project that I want to look into for the future.”

Brooklyn Ratel is an undergraduate biochemistry major and has enjoyed seeing the overlap between work on the project and the topics presented in her classes. “As I continue on the biochemistry path, it’s really interesting to see how these things start to integrate into my class work, and how I can make these cross connections between my classes and with the research that’s happening. Now that I’m working on the systematic review, I see parts of our work applied from the micro level to the macro level, and it’s been a really interesting experience to see all these different connections.”

During the summer, the team also works with high school students who participate in the Garcia Program for summer research. For Ratel, working with motivated high school students has been rewarding. “Guiding them through the research process and showing them the parts of the lab that you can’t really get that unless you’re really there working with it, hands on, has been great. These kids get that and they do a really great job of making the most of it. It’s really cool to help not only guide them through that process, but also watch them have Aha! Moments in the lab when we have a breakthrough,” explained Ratel.

For Briman Yang, an undergraduate student majoring in chemical engineering, explaining the procedures to the high school students also helps cement his own knowledge. “It gives the high school students an opportunity to have hands-on experience, but also tests our ability as undergrads on how we can lead a project in the lab setting and is a testament to how well we know the procedures and what we are doing,” said Yang.

Rafailovich explained the importance of the VIP team for faculty, as well as students, “Science is more of a collaborative enterprise. It’s problem-based, not discipline-based. Bringing this down to the students is where it really counts, because that’s where the work has been done. And that’s what this program does and does very well.”

— Beth Squire

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