UA Bioengineering Research Probes the Mysteries of Cellular Growth and Repair

In his research into controlling and mimicking regenerative biological systems, Pak Kin Wong is developing new tools to unravel one of life’s greatest mysteries -- how cells grow and heal.

Pak Kin Wong, associate professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering, who directs the UA Systematic Bioengineering Laboratory, or SBL, and his UA Engineering research team are working to advance the field of regenerative medicine.

The process is familiar. From a fertilized cell or zygote, we all grow into highly complex multicellular human beings. A mountain bike crash along the way to adulthood may leave a painful gash on a knee that heals completely within a month. Or aging might bring on an aching back that is cured with surgery. But exactly how high-order architectures and functions from local interactions of individual cells achieve tissue regeneration and growth is not well understood.

Systematic bioengineering research helps bridge the gap between biology and engineering. In the past decade, bio-, nano- and information technologies have seen great advances. Bio- and nanotechnologies facilitate modification, manipulation and characterization of different biological objects down to the single-molecule level. Information technology provides the framework for organizing and controlling the complex bio-nano systems.

“Fusion of these technologies enables us to take innovative approaches to explore the fundamental design rules in cells,” said Wong. “SBL focuses not only on developing novel tools and approaches to systematically understand these complex biological systems, but also on controlling and mimicking these fantastic designs.”

Re-creating these self-organizing human systems, however, is by nature a process of trial and error.

“We create a scaffold with cells and growth factors, and hope that self-organization happens,” Wong said.

Self-organization is very different from most engineering designs, which are based on central coordination. For example, 3-D printing and computer numerical control machines use clearly defined central coordination to turn software-created designs into finished products or components. In contrast, nature does not have a blueprint or template. Think ants, for example. As individuals, ants don't know where the food is, but collectively they find it.

What’s needed, Wong said, is a “fundamental understanding of the regulatory mechanisms in tissue regeneration and the ability to guide these processes.”

“Systematic bioengineering holds great promise in treating degenerative diseases by stimulating damaged tissues to repair themselves, or replacing them with engineered tissues when the body cannot heal itself.” -- Pak Kin Wong, associate professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering.Ultimately, this research could lead to discoveries that improve quality of life. For example, the team has identified molecular targets that might be useful in facilitating wound healing and in mechanical approaches to controlling capillary architectures.

“Regenerative medicine holds great promise in treating degenerative diseases by stimulating damaged tissues to repair themselves, or by replacing them with engineered tissues when the body cannot heal itself,” Wong said.

In addition to being part of the AME faculty and directing the Systematic Bioengineering Laboratory, Wong has appointments in biomedical engineering in the College of Engineering, and in agricultural and biosystems engineering in the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He also is a member of the BIO5 Institute and the Southwest Environmental Health Science Center in the College of Pharmacy.

Wong’s research is funded by the Arizona Biomedical Research Commission, American Cancer Society, American Chemical Society, National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health.


Top picture: Members of Pak Kin Wong’s student research group -- Stephanie Wellington, a freshman studying veterinary science and biomedical engineering, and PhD candidate Zachary Dean -- work on a microfluidic device to manipulate cells.