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Cathal Kearney Receives $1.91 Million NIH Grant for Tissue Engineering Research

Cathal Kearney

Cathal Kearney

Dr. Cathal Kearney, an assistant professor in the Biomedical Engineering Department and the Institute for Applied Life Sciences, and his research team have been awarded a grant of $1.91 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The grant comes through the NIH NIGMS’s Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) R35 program and will be distributed to the Kearney Lab over the course of five years, beginning September 1, 2022.

The accepted proposal—titled “It Will All Get Better with Time: Circadian Rhythms in Tissue Engineering”—focuses on developing tools to investigate the role of 24-hour circadian rhythms in tissue engineering. Such rhythms play a crucial role in biological systems, yet they have traditionally been ignored in tissue engineering studies. When cells and tissues are studied outside the body without the intact signaling cues, individual cells rapidly fall out of sync with each other, thereby erasing rhythmic processes that should occur in natural systems. The removal of these processes leads to findings that do not capture the full complexity of biological systems.

Kearney and his team will address this issue by interrogating the role of circadian rhythms in tissue engineering and then harnessing timing as a tool for optimizing tissue regeneration. To do this, the lab is developing robotic devices in collaboration with Dr. Meghan Huber, assistant professor in the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department, to provide synchronizing signals at designated circadian times to reinstate rhythmic processes in cell and tissue studies. They will also investigate how coordinating therapeutic delivery with distinct circadian phases affects tissue growth. Finally, in a first-of-its-kind approach, the lab will test the possibility of driving circadian rhythms at regeneration sites through a triggered drug delivery system.

In describing these research goals, Kearney notes: “To our knowledge nobody has examined the role of circadian rhythms—how our body behaves during our sleep and wake cycles—in tissue engineering. We know that disruption to our circadian rhythms affect many aspects of our health, including the ability to grow and heal tissue. But, what if we want to engineer systems that direct growth of tissue inside and outside the body? Can we use circadian rhythms to our advantage, or do we need to work around them? These are the questions that this grant will allow us to investigate. What’s exciting for us is that we hope to unveil another tool that engineers can use in designing systems that regrow tissue for patients.”

By investigating this temporal aspect, Kearney and his team will be filling in a new area in the broader picture of tissue engineering. Recapitulating the fullest possible picture of our bodies in the lab is crucial. Not only is tissue engineering used as a medical intervention to help patients restore damaged tissue, it is also a valuable research tool, notably in cancer research. It allows researchers to create functional tissue substitutes in the laboratory, allowing for the controlled study of diseases and development and testing of potential treatments. In this way, Kearney’s work has profound implications for both the research community and patients. 

Kearney, who came to UMass in January of 2020, has been investigating the role of time in tissue engineering for several years. Since joining he has collaborated with Huber as well as with Dr. Ilia Karatsoreos from the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences on this project. Kearney, Huber, and Karatsoreos jointly received an Intramural Faculty Research Award Seed Grant from the Office of the Provost in 2020, which helped them initiate the project and generate the preliminary data for the proposal. Dr. S. Thai Thayumanavan, head of the Biomedical Engineering Department, has also been a key collaborator with Kearney on drug delivery research and will work with Kearney on this NIH-funded project.

(September 2022)