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A perfect collaboration

Advancing materials for health, where disciplines merge.

Spend some time with Lesley Chow and Hannah Dailey ‘02 ‘06G ‘09 Ph.D., and it will soon be abundantly clear that they make a great team. Chow, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering affiliated with Lehigh’s Bioengineering Department, and Dailey, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, are both new members of Lehigh’s faculty. They met at a new-hire orientation session―serendipity borne of Human Resource procedure―and now work together, and with a local hospital network, designing bioactive tissue scaffolds that can biodegrade as new tissue regenerates.

“Lesley and I are the perfect example of a Lehigh collaboration,” says Dailey. “What we are working on is really exciting because it touches on everything from the design of materials to execution, physiological loading, mechanical design, and surgical implementation. Lehigh is really committed to investing in these areas and bringing together skill sets.”

Their tunable tissue engineering project leverages Dailey’s experience with orthopedic devices and Chow’s knowledge of biomaterials. In their lab, they are building customizable lattices with bioactive surfaces, using a computerized robot that was customized into a specialized 3D printer. When the lattices are inserted in the body, the polymer scaffolding provides structural integrity, while bioactive functional groups attached on the surface attract the types of cells needed to promote the desired healing activity.

The lattices can be custom built for size and for a desired rate of biodegradation, depending the polymer used. Varying biochemistry can also be presented on the lattices, depending on the physiological process needed.

“The benefit of our technique is that it’s universal,” says Chow. “We can look for segments of proteins to find the biological cues we need, and put them on the polymers before we print the lattice. The implant then presents these cues to the body in a biologically appealing way. And if we find out a particular molecule isn’t working, we can change the chemical cue to foster the result we want.”

One way of imagining the project is like 3D printing, with a twist. “Right now, 3D printing is a buzzword,” Chow says. “We are riding that wave, but taking a slightly different approach by looking at the research from all angles. The processing affects materials, and vice versa, and this has an impact upon the cells themselves. So, we are getting down to the nitty-gritty and finding out what that cell will feel when it encounters our scaffold.”

At present, Chow and Dailey are working toward clinical applications that include tendon, ligament and cartilage repair, but their ambitions reach higher.

“The platform we’re developing can build polymeric structures that induce regeneration of tissue, and we will be able to tweak its parameters and apply it to lots of different clinical therapeutic areas,” says Dailey. “Medical treatment for orthopedic injuries and degenerative joint disease can be incredibly difficult for patients, and places a tremendously expensive burden upon the U.S. healthcare system. We think our technology can make a real difference.”

The team has received a Collaborative Research Opportunity grant from Lehigh and are partnering with the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at St. Luke’s University Health Network in Bethlehem.

“This project allows us to share our expertise, bring out the best in our work and look to the future,” says Chow. “It’s one of the benefits of being here at Lehigh.”

Read the full story in the Spring 2017 issue of Resolve Magazine.

Story by Chris Quirk