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Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering faculty member Brendan Harley and a team of researchers from the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology’s Regenerative Biology and Tissue Engineering theme were awarded a National Science Foundation grant that will provide funding for a new 3D-bioprinting instrument.

The Major Research Instrumentation grant will fund the purchase of an EnvisionTEC 3D-Bioplotter, a bioprinting system that is essentially a 3D printer for tissues.

Much of the research in the Regenerative Biology and Tissue Engineering (RBTE) theme involves developing approaches to regenerate tissues in order to address problems of human health. But this is not a simple task, considering human tissues are all uniquely complex.

Bioprinting, which uses 3D printing technology to create cell patterns and fabricate biomaterials, will allow researchers to print materials that closely resemble human tissues.

Unlike many 3D printers, which print metals or other hard materials, this bioplotter will let researchers print a wide variety of materials — including materials that are similar in consistency to toothpaste, as well as materials that are the size of human hair or smaller.

“This bioplotter really allows us to do all that,” said Brendan Harley, Associate Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and theme leader. “It really lets us open up the toolbox of the materials we can use.”

The bioplotter will be housed within IGB as a shared-use facility that will be accessible to researchers across campus.

Several research efforts at the IGB and the University of Illinois are dedicated to developing tissue engineering solutions that could impact a range of important healthcare issues such as cancer, stem cell behavior and more.

Harley hopes researchers will look to the IGB and the RBTE theme as a hub for tissue engineering on campus.

He said 3D bioplotters have finally become capable of reliably printing at the scale needed to produce complex tissues, and with the acquisition of this printer, IGB will be at the forefront of tissue engineering research.

“We’re going to be able to do some really exciting new work,” he said. “Everything’s in place to really attack big, challenging problems.”

By Emily Scott, IGB Science Writer and Outreach Specialist

The National Science Foundation has awarded a $1.2 million, three-year grant to four professors in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering for a project that has potential to advance the frontiers of 3-D printing. Drs. Charles Sing, Ying Diao, Damien Guironnet, and Simon Rogers intend to create a platform for designing advanced materials that allows makers to tune the structure and function of a material on-the-fly.

Not long after arriving on campus, the team of investigators, each an assistant professor with a different research background and set of skills, got together to brainstorm what intriguing challenges they could solve together. Take camouflage. Camouflage is only effective as long as the person wearing it remains crouched in the jungle or standing by a sand dune in the desert. What if you had a material that could provide camouflage in many different environments, and you control how it works? Chameleons change color by adjusting skin structure at nanometer-length scales. Could humans design something similar with advanced materials processing?

“What we’re talking about is making a device, an object, instrument, from ostensibly the same material. It has different properties in different parts of the material,” Rogers said. Imagine a Lego brick that has one transparent wall, but the brick is made from all the same material. There’s one material with different properties, and the maker controls the material’s properties.

The project has two overarching goals: develop a screening method for versatile, 3-D printable block copolymer materials, which are two or more different polymer chains linked together; and screen to optimize flow-based tuning of morphology in 3-D printed materials. That entails testing their hypothesis that tuning the flow in 3-D printing will allow for on-the-fly or on-demand manipulation. Insights gained from their research could have potential applications in camouflage, antireflection coatings, metamaterials and displays.

Professors Ying Diao, Damien Guironnet, Charles Sing and Simon Rogers

For this project, each faculty member brings a distinct set of skills and expertise. Charles Sing, who works in molecular simulation and theory, will provide what he described as a treasure map. His research will guide the synthesis that occurs in the lab of Damien Guironnet, the self-described “cook.” Because Sing will be predicting some of the molecule’s properties beforehand, Guironnet will be able to synthesize the molecules that will make the polymers with the unique structure needed for the process.

From there, the material is handed over to Simon Rogers and members of his lab, who carefully control different flow conditions and investigate how the structures reorganize. Rogers then feeds information gleaned from his experiments and analysis to Ying Diao’s group. Diao will take the novel molecule and, with the knowledge of how this material reacted to Rogers’ experiments, she will attempt to make a functional material using 3-D printing.

Rogers then feeds information gleaned from his experiments and analysis to Ying Diao’s group. Diao will take the novel molecule and, with the knowledge of how this material reacted to Rogers’ experiments, she will attempt to make a functional material using 3-D printing.

“One key issue we’re interested in is the assembly, how to direct the assembling of the materials because it’s critical to the function,” Diao said. “In this case, we’re interested in the photonic properties. Can we potentially make camouflage using this functional material by assembling the material into highly ordered structures? We’ll be able to sensitively modulate the structure over length scales predicted by Charles Sing.”

What they’re doing could be called a “high-risk, high-reward” type of project, Diao said, because proposing to physically change structure on the fly is a fairly new idea. “The challenge is, how the assembly of this novel class of materials respond to flow is previously unknown. Flow-directed 3D printing is also not demonstrated before and requires significant innovation to realize,” she said.

Faculty anticipate discoveries and some surprises along the way because the material they’ll be working with is new and the process, called non-equilibrium processing, is still a relatively new concept, they said.

The grant comes from the NSF’s Designing Materials to Revolutionize and Engineer our Future (or DMREF) program, which specifically funds projects that aim to develop advanced materials quickly and at a fraction of the cost.

What makes the project unique is each investigator has a role to play in each other’s research. Due to the iterative, multi-project investigator structure, there will be a lot of coordination involved and each faculty member will need to understand results from their colleagues to be able to apply it to their own research.

“It’s an exciting challenge,” Guironnet said. “We get the opportunity to understand each other’s work to increase the impact of our own research. And at the same time, I get to extend my expertise as well,” he said.

What’s also unique about the group is that each investigator is an assistant faculty member. They all joined the department within about a year of each other.

“Because we’re new professors, there’s been a focus on building our own reputations, our own lab expertise. This is our moment to do something bigger than that, and that is extremely exciting,” Sing said.

Thanks to the NSF funding, faculty also plan to expand their outreach projects in computation, characterization and synthesis, via the Girls’ Adventures in Math, Engineering and Science (GAMES) summer camp and the St. Elmo Brady STEM Academy, which exposes underrepresented elementary students to STEM fields.

More information about the grant can be found here.

 

Program to form new insight on the brain, expand participation in field of brain science

The National Science Foundation recently granted the University of Illinois $3 million for an interdisciplinary graduate student training program to help form new insight on the brain—and to expand participation in the field of brain science itself.

Sixty graduate students from across campus will participate in the five-year National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Traineeship, led by Martha Gillette, professor of cell and developmental biology and director of the Neuroscience Program. Hyunjoon Kong, professor in chemical and biomolecular engineering, is the lead co-principal investigator.

The project’s primary goal is to provide students with an immersive research experience that blends techniques from multiple disciplines to better understand the many aspects of the human body’s most complex organ.

The program will teach students to use and understand miniature brain machinery critical to examining and regulating brain activities. It’s also designed to increase the participation of women, underrepresented minorities, and students with disabilities in the field of brain science.

A third goal is to improve scientists’ communication skills with the public.

Kong and Gillette
Martha Gillette and Hyunjoon Kong

“This is a training initiative between neuroscience and engineering. It’s building on some of the new technologies in engineering, but it’s focused on better understanding the brain,” Gillette said. “It’s exciting because it’s going to let us do new things and train graduate students in new ways.”

Students will come from several departments across campus, including neuroscience, cell and developmental biology, molecular and integrative physiology, chemistry, psychology, chemical and biomolecular engineering, bioengineering, and electrical and computer engineering.

The training program will bridge two research paradigms about the brain: cognitive and behavioral studies, including the use of bioimaging and computational tools to understand adaptation, decision-making, psychology, and learning of an individual; and cell and tissue studies, with a focus on altering cell activity through a variety of methods.

To meet these goals, the program will guide graduate students through specialized courses to broaden their knowledge beyond their own specific fields. Training courses will address behavior and the development of the nervous system as well as engineering, biological, and psychological perspectives on how brain activity can be modified.

Bashir Cohen Sweedler
From left: Rashid Bashir, Neal Cohen, Jonathan Sweedler

The U of I project was one of only three proposals aimed at understanding the brain selected for this particular NSF project, out of a large national competition. Co-directors on the project include Rashid Bashir, professor of bioengineering and electrical and computer engineering and head of the Department of Bioengineering; Neal Cohen, professor of psychology; and Jonathan Sweedler, professor of chemistry.

Students also will have opportunities to visit and work with the laboratories of international partners, including the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology of A*STAR (Singapore), the Biomedical Research Institute of the Korean Institute of Science and Technology (S. Korea), the University of Tokyo (Japan), the University of Okayama (Japan), the University of Birmingham (U.K.), and the Johannes Gutenberg-University at Mainz (Germany).

While the funding mainly contributes to a training program for graduate students, the project also has a research component.  Gillette expects the project to advance a relatively new field of study regarding how, through cross-talking, groups of cells behave differently than the entity that they’re part of.

“The idea of using these self-organizing neuron preparations is new,” Gillette said. “It’s new enough that over the five years of the grant and training period, it will really develop a lot, especially with the technologies we have.”

The U of I’s interdisciplinary approach fits with the NSF’s focus for the training program.

“Integration of research and education through interdisciplinary training will prepare a workforce that undertakes scientific challenges in innovative ways,” said Dean Evasius, director of the NSF Division of Graduate Education. “The NSF Research Traineeship awards will ensure that today’s graduate students are prepared to pursue cutting-edge research and solve the complex problems of tomorrow.”

By Samantha Jones Toal, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Illinois is pleased to announced that four graduate students in the program have received the prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and one student has received an honorable mention.

Congratulations to NSF Graduate Research Fellowship recipients Jason Adams, Raul Sun Han Chang, Jason Madinya, and Aleczandria Tiffany. They joined the department in Fall 2016. In addition, Uzoma Nwabara received an Honorable Mention. She also joined the program last fall.

For the 2017 competition, the NSF received over 13,000 applications, and made 2,000 award offers. Launched in 1952, the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship program is the nation’s oldest and largest fellowship program for graduate students. It is also one of the most prestigious.

Aleczandria Tiffany completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Southern California and is a member of Associate Professor Brendan Harley’s research group. Raul Sun Han Chang’s bachelor’s degree is from Pomona College and he also is a member of Dr. Harley’s research group.

Jason Madinya earned his bachelor’s degree from Florida State University and is a member of Professor Deborah Leckband’s research group and Assistant Professor Charles Sing’s group.

Jason Adams completed his undergraduate studies at Georgia Tech and is a member of Assistant Professor David Flaherty’s lab.

NSF grad fellows 2017
From left: Jason Adams, Aleczandria Tiffany, Jason Madinya, and Raul Sun Han Chang.

 

Sing, Charles
Assistant Professor Charles Sing

Charles E. Sing, Assistant Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Illinois, has received a 2017 National Science Foundation CAREER Award for his proposal, “Developing the design rules of charge sequence to inform polymer self-assembly.”

The National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development Program’s CAREER Awards are prestigious and competitive awards given to junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholar through outstanding research, excellent education, and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their respective organizations. The program will provide five years of support.

“I am incredibly honored by this award. I think it reflects the exciting ideas and hard work of my students, and I am excited to keep working with them to explore this new area of charged, patterned polymers. I hope we can live up to this recognition and push the field forward,” Sing said.

Dr. Sing aims to enable advances in materials that demand structural precision at the nano-level, such as fuel cell membranes, functional coatings and sensors, and drug delivery vehicles.

His research is inspired by the sophisticated precision of biological systems made from large molecules that specifically and exclusively interact using information encoded in patterns of electrostatic charge. He will investigate whether polymers—long chain-like molecules made of joined molecular units called monomers—that self-organize can be made to behave in a similar way. He and his research group will determine how patterns of electrostatically charged monomers along a polymer molecular chain can be designed to guide the self-organization of molecular structures at the nanometer length scale.

The NSF CAREER award will also support outreach efforts. Sing and his graduate and undergraduate students volunteer with the St. Elmo Brady STEM Academy, which aims to boost interest in STEM among underrepresented minorities. They teach elementary-age students about issues such as sustainability and the lifecycle of plastics and introduce them to interactive computer simulation activities.

Sing joined the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering faculty in 2014. He received his BSE/MS from Case Western Reserve University and his PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His postdoctoral work was at Northwestern University’s International Institute for Nanotechnology.

Charles E. Sing, Assistant Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Illinois, has received a 2017 National Science Foundation CAREER Award for his proposal, “Developing the design rules of charge sequence to inform polymer self-assembly.”

The National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development Program’s CAREER Awards are prestigious and competitive awards given to junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholar through outstanding research, excellent education, and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their respective organizations. The program will provide five years of support.

Sing, Charles
Charles E. Sing

“I am incredibly honored by this award. I think it reflects the exciting ideas and hard work of my students, and I am excited to keep working with them to explore this new area of charged, patterned polymers. I hope we can live up to this recognition and push the field forward,” Sing said.

Dr. Sing aims to enable advances in materials that demand structural precision at the nano-level, such as fuel cell membranes, functional coatings and sensors, and drug delivery vehicles.

His research is inspired by the sophisticated precision of biological systems made from large molecules that specifically and exclusively interact using information encoded in patterns of electrostatic charge. He will investigate whether polymers—long chain-like molecules made of joined molecular units called monomers—that self-organize can be made to behave in a similar way. He and his research group will determine how patterns of electrostatically charged monomers along a polymer molecular chain can be designed to guide the self-organization of molecular structures at the nanometer length scale.

The NSF CAREER award will also support outreach efforts. Sing and his graduate and undergraduate students volunteer with the St. Elmo Brady STEM Academy, which aims to boost interest in STEM among underrepresented minorities. They teach elementary-age students about issues such as sustainability and the lifecycle of plastics and introduce them to interactive computer simulation activities.

Sing joined the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering faculty in 2014. He received his BSE/MS from Case Western Reserve University and his PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His postdoctoral work was at Northwestern University’s International Institute for Nanotechnology.

By studying the behavior of living cells and combining them with synthetic tissue, an interdisciplinary group of researchers is creating “biological machines” to deliver drugs more effectively, function as internal diagnostic tools or serve as contaminant sensors in the field.

This work is facilitated by a multi-institution effort known as the Emergent Behaviors of Integrated Cellular Systems, which recently received $25 million in National Science Foundation renewal funding for the next five years to build living, multicellular machines to solve environmental, health and security problems. Hyunjoon Kong, Associate Professor and Centennial Scholar in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, is among the researchers working on the project.

The EBICS project is unique in that both the funding and management are shared equally by the primary participants, which include the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the Georgia Institute of Technology and lead institution, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Eight other institutions also provide research assistance.

Members of the EBICS team, left to right: Gabriel Popescu, UI professor of electrical and computer engineering; Hyunjoon Kong, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering; Martha Gillette, UI professor of cell and developmental biology; Taher Saif, UI professor of mechanical science and engineering; EBICS Director Roger Kamm of MIT; Rashid Bashir, UI professor and head of the department of bioengineering; program coordinator Carrie Kouadio, a visiting program coordinator in the Micro and Nanotechnology Lab. Photo by Gregory Pluta
Members of the EBICS team, left to right: Gabriel Popescu, UI professor of electrical and computer engineering; Hyunjoon Kong, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering; Martha Gillette, UI professor of cell and developmental biology; Taher Saif, UI professor of mechanical science and engineering; EBICS Director Roger Kamm of MIT; Rashid Bashir, UI professor and head of the department of bioengineering; program coordinator Carrie Kouadio, a visiting program coordinator in the Micro and Nanotechnology Lab. Photo by Gregory Pluta

According to Rashid Bashir, EBICS co-principal investigator and head of the department of bioengineering at Illinois, the goal of the project is to build non-natural functions with cells. “Take vascular disease, for example,” Bashir said. “One could approach the problem from the standpoint of, ‘What if we could take passive vascular cells and combine them with cardiac muscle cells to create vascular tissue that could pump?’ Such devices would allow patients’ own bodies to become part of the solution.” The group’s efforts aren’t limited to improving human health. “We’re also interested in building living machines that can do things like sense toxins in water and potentially neutralize them,” he said.

In the first phase of the project, the researchers examined the behaviors of muscle, neuronal and vascular cells. Although much is known about how these cells function, little was known about integrating them.

“We needed to learn how to grow diverse cells together, as each has its own ideal growing conditions,” Bashir said. “We also needed to learn how to get them to communicate with each other.”

Developing so-called biobots takes a wide range of expertise. Bashir is joined on the U. of I. EBICS team by professors Martha Gillette, of cell and developmental biology, Hyunjoon Kong, of chemical and biomolecular engineering, Gabriel Popescu, of electrical and computer engineering, and Taher Saif, of mechanical science and engineering.

Gillette’s group develops neuronal circuits to provide sensing and processing. Kong develops new scaffolds and biomaterials to “house” the cells and the machines. And Popescu develops new imaging techniques to visualize and study the emergent behavior of living cells over time.

Saif’s group developed one- and two-dimensional swimming bots whose locomotion tissue is made from soft polymers and 10-micron-thick films. These millimeter-scale “swimmers” can propel themselves in one direction using the force generated by heart muscle cells. According to Saif, this research could pave the way for internal diagnostics that are more accurate than poking or prodding, or they can be developed to deliver drugs to treat disease.

For another biobot, the researchers randomly placed rat heart muscle cells on a layer of soft plastic hydrogel that they designed and printed with a 3-D printer. The natural contracting and relaxing of the cells allowed the bot to pull itself along or “walk” in culture medium.

Another “walking” device relies on skeletal muscle cells. It responds and moves on command to electric fields. Most recently, the team has been working with muscle cells that can be controlled remotely by blue light and could be the key to developing new remotely controlled tissues and systems.

Another major component of the center is the ethical context of the ongoing and future research. Former U. of I. professor of education Lizanne DeStefano, who currently heads Georgia Tech’s Center for Education Integrating Science, Mathematics and Computing, coordinated the team that is developing ethics modules to ensure faculty members and students are always cognizant of the ethical implications of their work.

Written by freelance writer Anna Barnes and Susan McKenna, the associate director of communications in the bioengineering department.

Brendan Harley, Associate Professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, has received a two-year grant from the National Science Foundation for “EAGER: Biomanufacturing the hematopoietic stem cell niche.”

Associate Professor Brendan A. Harley
Associate Professor Brendan A. Harley

Working with Professor Bruce Hannon of the University of Illinois Department of Geography and Geographic Information Science, the project will demonstrate approaches that integrate traditional experimental tools with rules-based models in order to design a stem cell biomanufacturing platform to selectively expand donor hematopoietic stem cells.

The effort will use tools previously developed to study ecological and economic sustainability in fishery and other wildlife population management questions to examine the dynamics of stem cells.

The project’s objective is to demonstrate a new paradigm for advanced stem cell manufacturing. Hematopoiesis is the process where the body’s blood and immune cells are generated from a small number of hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) whose behavior is regulated by regions of the bone marrow termed niches. There is an unmet clinical need for stem cell biomanufacturing approaches to selectively expanding donor HSCs while also priming them for HSC transplants used to treat a wide range of hematologic diseases.

Learn more about the announcement from the NSF.

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