Professor Huang Wins NSF CAREER Award

Mar 15 2013 | By Holly Evarts

Biomedical Engineering Assistant Professor Hayden Huang has won a National Science Foundation CAREER Award for his research on three-dimensional (3D) cell mechanics. One of the NSF’s most prestigious awards that honors exceptional junior faculty, the CAREER Award will support Huang’s work with a $425,000 five-year grant.

“I am honored to receive a CAREER Award,” says Huang. “It will enable me to establish the groundwork for critical research in cell and tissue biomechanics, as well as to develop imaging techniques and computational models that I hope will augment biomedical knowledge and lead to improved diagnoses or treatments. Because of the rapid development of 3D tissue-engineered constructs and the need for properly conditioning and characterizing cell properties, my work is intended to address a large gap in our current knowledge.”

Hayden Huang

Huang’s research focuses on cell mechanics and mechanotransduction—how cells convert mechanical stimuli to chemical signals and cellular changes. He studies responses of cells to different types of physical stimuli as well as factors modulating cell mechanical properties and adhesion. He notes that cell properties have been extensively examined in two dimensions (2D), with scientists discovering all kinds of useful information about how cells stick to substrates, move, establish polarity, generate traction forces, and respond via mechanotransduction. However, most cells in vivo exist in a 3D environment, where, he says, “their behavior is considerably different compared to when they are plated on a petri dish. Not only are there significant geometric differences, but there are also omnidirectional cell-cell interactions as well as cell-matrix interactions. As we make advances in disease and tissue engineering research, it is imperative that we establish cellular behavior and properties, under such conditions, in detail.”

But imaging and otherwise probing cells that are embedded within other cells and/or matrices is difficult to do. The difficulty occurs, in part, because light carrying important information can be distorted or attenuated when imaging through multiple cell layers or gels, and, in part, because embedded cells are generally inaccessible to conventional instruments such as atomic force microscopes. Huang plans to develop transformative techniques to get more information from 3D cellular environments by designing and deploying custom imaging setups, coupled with computational models to help interpret the results.

“Because 3D is a growing area of cell-based research,” he says, “and because there are few tools for examining biomechanics and mechanotransduction in 3D experimentation, I hope that my research will help advance the field of biomechanics, and contribute to tissue engineering and imaging. My eventual goal is to establish a vastly improved and more realistic model of multicellular behavior and to better understand cell regulation and physiology.”

Huang hopes to be able to answer questions like how cells change their architecture when stretched and how cells communicate and adapt under different environments. Answering these questions will be useful for understanding disease models and for improving the condition of tissue-engineered constructs.

“Preliminary work demonstrates that cell behavior in layered arrangements is already more complex than conventional 2D plating can predict,” Huang adds. “So it’s clear that we need to deploy more advanced methods to study cells in 3D. The idea is to precisely characterize cell properties under realistic but controlled conditions, where we can vary the extracellular matrix constituents, the mechanical stresses acting on the cells, and the degree of cell-cell interactions. This CAREER award provides a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate the potential of this field.”

As part of his CAREER award, Huang is also planning to expand his lab’s educational outreach by engaging undergraduates in lab research and creating short videos with a focus on biomedical engineering topics and techniques. “These are intended to be short and focus on select topics, like the ‘Minute Physics’ videos, that we’ll make available on YouTube or similar video sites,” he adds. “We hope they’ll appeal to a wide audience and draw more young people into science and research.”