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Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

Harley receives NSF CAREER Award

Assistant Professor Brendan Harley from Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Illinois received a five-year National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award, which will allow Harley and his research team to develop a synthetic bone marrow biomaterial to aid the study of hematopoiesis and hematopoietic diseases.

“We are working to develop a scalable bone-marrow-on-a-chip that acts as a rheostat to control the growth and behavior of hematopoietic stem cells from the bone marrow,” Harley said. Hematopoiesis is the process where all blood and immune cells are generated from a small number of hematopoietic stem cells.

Assistant Professor Brendan Harley is a recipient of a NSF CAREER award
Assistant Professor Brendan Harley is a recipient of a NSF CAREER award

Even though some hematopoietic cells are already used clinically to treat diseases such as leukemia, their rarity within the bone marrow makes it difficult to study these events inside the body. One of the major bottlenecks in the development of artificial bone marrow, Harley says, is that it remains unclear how combinations of signals from the marrow impacts hematopoiesis.

“To overcome this challenge, new biomaterials systems are needed,” he said.

With the funding through the NSF CAREER award, Harley and his team will build upon a bone marrow biochip platform that they have recently created in the laboratory. “This approach allows us to reduce the complexity of the native bone marrow to a manageable series of discrete signals within a 3-D biomaterial,” he said. “We have identified an approach to generate libraries of unique, optically-translucent biomaterials that contain overlapping patterns of marrow-inspired signals.”

During the next five years, Harley will chart how the combinations of three important classes of signals¬—the structural make-up of the bone marrow, the local presence of supportive niche cells from the marrow, and the diffusion of nutrients—impact hematopoietic stem cell growth.

“Our long-term goal is to build an artificial bone marrow platform that provides the correct sequence of niche signals to grow hematopoietic cells in the laboratory,” he said. “This work will provide critical insight into the design of more complex biomaterial systems to control all phases of hematopoiesis.”

“An engineered platform to study and control their behavior outside the body would open up a range of exciting new research avenues such as producing patient-specific blood and immune cells or evaluating the initiation, growth, and treatment of a wide range of hematopoietic diseases,” Harley said.

Harley says he is extremely excited to receive an NSF CAREER award to pursue a research platform that is a departure from traditional biomaterial science.

“My goal from the beginning at Illinois has been to establish an academic program that develops novel biomaterial platforms to address critical problems in medicine while mentoring future generations of rigorous, creative engineers,” he said. “It is incredibly gratifying that our efforts have been recognized by the NSF through the CAREER program. This award is also a reflection of the quality of the students and colleagues I have here at Illinois. Without their support it would not have been possible to build my research group.”

Department Head Paul Kenis, who also received a CAREER award in 2006, said receiving the federal research grant is a well-deserved honor for Harley. “Harley is a leader in the design of strategies to regenerate junctions between musculoskeletal tissues as well as development of miniaturized biomaterials to study cell behavior outside the body such as this effort to create an artificial bone marrow,” Kenis said.

Harley received his S.B. engineering sciences from Harvard University as well as an M.S. and Sc.D. in mechanical engineering from MIT. He was a postdoctoral research fellow in the Joint Program in Transfusion Medicine at Children’s Hospital Boston and Harvard Medical School from 2006-2008. He joined the faculty at Illinois in 2008 as an Assistant Professor in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering as well as a core faculty member at the Institute for Genomic Biology.

The CAREER grants are the most prestigious awards given to the best young university faculty in a highly competitive annual program. These teacher-scholars are recognized for their outstanding research, excellent education and the lifelong integration of education and research.

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