Catherine K. Kuo Lab engineer 311.
(photo credit: Kelvin Ma/Tufts University)
MEDFORD/SOMERVILLE, Mass. – A new approach to studying tissue development has earned Catherine K. Kuo, Ph.D., an assistant professor of biomedical engineering in Tufts University's School of Engineering, the Basil O'Connor Starter Scholar Award from the March of Dimes Foundation.
Kuo's research could yield insight into factors that contribute to orthopedic birth defects that occur in utero, such as clubfoot, which requires multiple surgeries to enable normal standing and walking. These defects occur as a result of abnormal musculoskeletal tissue development of the embryo.
In her experiments, Kuo will use living engineered embryonic tendon
tissue to see how muscle movement by the developing fetus—for example,
kicking—might influence abnormal musculoskeletal tissue development in
"Currently we don't know the extent to which muscle activity contributes
to birth defects," says Kuo. "I chose the tendon as a model tissue to
study because of its critical roles in force transmission and joint
stabilization in a normal musculoskeletal system."
Kuo will engineer tendon tissue in the lab from cells from chick and
mouse embryos. "It's very difficult to study developing tissue, in this
case, tendon, inside the body, and especially in utero," she says.
Kuo will seed living embryonic cells into a porous, biodegradable
synthetic scaffold. Placed into a nutrient-rich bioreactor, the
cell-seeded scaffold will grow into living engineered tissue.
Kuo will subject the tissue-engineered tendon to forces that mimic
muscle movement, such as flexing, which occurs during kicking. Using
this approach, Kuo will study what happens when cells are forming into
tendons while being constantly exposed to stretching, twisting, and
"At the end of the day, we want to have the answers to the questions:
How does tissue stiffness affect the developing cells? How does movement
such as kicking affect them? And what are the combined effects of
stiffness and movement?" says Kuo.
In addition, Kuo plans to intentionally engineer a developing tissue
with abnormal stiffness to investigate its effect on embryonic
development. These studies could potentially lead to learning which
interventions could restore normal functioning after birth.
"By engineering and testing normally and abnormally developing tissues
in the lab, we can perform large, systematic studies to screen the
effects of different therapies that we couldn’t easily do otherwise,"
Among her research goals is to discover if she can "retrain" embryonic
or fetal cells. "During embryonic development, could we treat the cells
and tissues in utero, or could we even take them out, treat them in a
bioreactor to recondition them to behave normally, and then put them
back in and help develop the normal function of that tissue?" she asks.
The Basil O'Connor Starter Scholar Research Award, $150,000 over two
years, is designed to support young scientists and engineers embarking
on their research careers with a particular focus on the prevention or
treatment of birth defects.
This article was first published at www.newswise.com