In 2008 the UMass Amherst Institute for Cellular Engineering, or ICE, was funded with a $3-million grant from the NSF to provide graduate students with the fellowships, training, and hands-on research opportunities to build an employment pipeline directly into some of the country’s most crucial biotechnological and biomedical industries. The students train with campus researchers doing such key work as generating artificial organs and tissues, biologic pharmaceuticals, targeted drug delivery systems, fuel made from plant material, and processes to clean up contaminated wastewater and soils.
“This is the first training program at the university designed specifically to address the interface between engineering and the life sciences,” said Susan Roberts, the director of ICE and a professor in the Chemical Engineering Department. “Essentially, cellular engineering is applied cellular and molecular biology. By understanding basic cellular processes, cells can be directed to function optimally for specific applications.”
Cellular engineering is an emerging, inherently interdisciplinary field integrating research in biology, chemical engineering, computer science, animal science, microbiology, and materials science – all areas in which UMass Amherst excels. A total of 20 faculty members from nine science and engineering departments and three interdisciplinary graduate programs across the UMass Amherst campus are involved in the NSF-funded program, which is called Interdisciplinary Research Training in Cellular Engineering. A total of 25 students will each receive annual fellowships of $30,00 for two years and will be recruited from the second- and third-year graduate student pool at UMass Amherst.
The NSF grant focuses on three main research thrusts: applied systems biology; cell delivery; and protein engineering.
The first, applied systems biology, is directed towards the development and application of novel approaches to the system-wide study of cellular networks such as the human body. “One example is looking at how gene expression changes in a diseased cell versus a healthy cell,” said Roberts. “By looking at the gene expression pattern, you can figure out which genes are implicated in the disease and ultimately design better drugs and treatment strategies.”
The second major thrust is cell delivery, or building transport systems that deliver cells to the body to repair diseased tissues. For example, Roberts is working on increasing oxygen supply to polymer-encapsulated liver and cartilage cells, with applications in tissue replacement. Lawrence Schwartz of the Biology Department is working on novel technology to enhance survival of transplanted muscle cells to repair heart attack damage.
“The third thrust is protein engineering, which is a discipline that is very strong on our campus,” said Roberts. “We have an excellent group of interdisciplinary faculty within this thrust, many trying to understand protein structure and folding which can lead to the generation of superior proteins and new strategies to treat human disease.”
For example, Jeanne Hardy of the Chemistry Department works on understanding which proteins are responsible for specific aspects of cell death, which can lead to better treatments for cancer, heart attack, stroke and other diseases.
Key features of the graduate training program include: new hands-on summer workshops to train both life scientists and engineers/physical scientists in the fundamentals of cellular engineering; interdisciplinary research involving “supergroup” projects where students seek out collaboration with a related training laboratory; interaction with industry through the newly established ICE; weekly research seminar series with a mentoring component; and formal professional development activities.
ICE is in the process of establishing a bioengineering-based industrial consortium of New England-based companies to work with UMass Amherst in its efforts to build a regional workforce in cellular engineering.
“The primary outcome of this novel training program,” concluded Roberts, “is establishing a well-trained workforce in state-of-the art technologies; a workforce that is poised to take a leadership role in cellular engineering both in academia and industry.”