As an alternative to using laboratory animals to study diseases, what if you could actually build realistic working models of bone, breast, liver, or artery tissues under attack by diseases? The operative word would be “control.” Not only could you perform reproducible experiments in a highly controlled environment, but you could also exercise very tight control over many of the physical and chemical properties of diseased tissues. This kind of tissue modeling, in fact, is what Dr. Shelly Peyton of the Chemical Engineering Department does in her research lab, whose ultimate goal is to develop new drug therapies to fight our worst diseases.  

“Basically what my lab does is make disease models of tissues so we can study in the lab how cells behave during a disease,” Peyton explains. “These models act as a sort of substitute for using animals to study disease in the lab. Instead, we can make tissues that look very much like a tissue would look like in an animal. We create these models with biomaterials made from soft polymer substrates that we can make very easily.”

Dr. Peyton’s lab is a beehive of seemingly diverse activities revolving around these simple but elegant models that could eventually have a profound effect on medical research.

One of her students is focused on mimicking and studying arterial disease. Another is looking at liver cancer. Two projects are researching the deadly questions of how, why, and when cancer cells in breast tumors migrate to other organs. Yet another project is studying how to use stem cells as therapeutic mechanisms to regenerate diseased tissues in humans.

These projects, as they evolve in coming years, are liable to yield breakthroughs for treating some of humankind’s most lethal diseases. For example, cardiovascular disease has been the number one killer in the United States since about 1900. The number two killer, and gaining fast, is cancer. Nine out of 10 cancer deaths result from cell metastasis, the ability of cancer cells to migrate away from their primary tumor and colonize secondary organs all over the body.

“In the lab, we can now make those organs as substitutes with these materials,” explains Peyton, “and we can study how cancer cells might invade those tissues.”

Such cell motility, in fact, is one of two common denominators in all the research being conducted in Peyton’s lab. The other is tissue modeling.

“It’s a very diverse lab group in terms of disease, but everyone in the lab uses the same basic tools,” Peyton observes. “They learn how to make models with polymers.” And every model allows researchers to study the behavior of cells as they migrate.

Peyton, herself, exhibited her own migratory behavior before arriving at UMass Amherst to establish her fascinating lab. She was an undergrad in chemical engineering at Northwestern University, where she originally got interested in how to use quantitative chemical engineering principles for controlling cell behavior. Doing her graduate work at the University of California Irvine, she used materials engineering to study cell biology and became especially focused on this whole cell-motility question. And it was during her post doc at MIT that she applied some of these migration principles to stem cells, seeded in various artificial three-dimensional structures, called “scaffolds,” so the cells could be used to repair diseased tissues in the body.

One more thing she learned during her pilgrimage through these prestigious institutions is that she wanted to do something rather novel. “There are a lot of people thinking about questions of cell motility in the cell biology field, and a lot of them in materials science and engineering thinking about developing new material,” she says. “I fit in the middle. I’m in a small subset of people trying to use synthetic chemistry to design materials to control cell behavior and look at cell mechanisms.”

The whole idea is really to study these cells in an in-vivo-like environment, akin to a lab animal, but in a way that’s more controllable and reproducible.

“We can do that in the lab with materials,” she says. “We can study a lot of cellular mechanisms. Not only the response and how they migrate, but what’s going on internally with the cell. That pertains to all the studies we are doing in my lab. Cell motility is so ubiquitous in all these diseases and many many others.” (March 2011)