Tufts Engineer Wins NSF CAREER Award to Study How Tendons Form in the Embryo

April 11, 2013

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MEDFORD/SOMERVILLE, Mass – Catherine K. Kuo, Ph.D., assistant professor of biomedical engineering in Tufts University's School of Engineering, has received the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious award to support her research in understanding how tendons form in the embryo. The $400,000 NSF CAREER Award will enable Kuo’s lab to investigate how cells use mechanical cues in the embryonic environment to direct tendon formation. 

This research will play a pivotal role in the lab’s overall mission—to engineer new living tendons that can one day be used to replace injured or dysfunctional tendons in the human body. It will build on findings published April 1 by Kuo and her students in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, titled "Characterization of Mechanical and Biological Properties of Developing Embryonic Tendon." The paper investigated how mechanical properties of these tissues elaborate during embryonic development, and characterized these properties as potential cues that may be able to direct stem cells to regenerate new tendon.

"As a new tendon develops, it gradually acquires strength and stiffness due to proteins that embryonic cells continually secrete and assemble into an organized matrix," says Kuo, who specializes in tissue engineering with stem cells. "Now that we have characterized how stiffness changes during tissue formation, we are studying how embryonic cells sense these continuously changing mechanical properties during development, and convert these dynamic physical cues into biological instructions to build and grow new tendon."

With this grant, Kuo will examine how specific proteins in the cell’s membrane and cytoskeleton are involved in "feeling" the stiffness of the environment and processing these mechanical signals into biological ones. Once this process is understood, she will investigate the ability to use mechanics to direct stem cells in the formation of new tissues, with the long-term goal of regenerating new tissues to replace dysfunctional tendons.

Tendons are important because they transfer mechanical forces, or physical stresses, from muscle to bone and stabilize joints. When injured, adult tendons do not heal normally, and are the culprits in disorders such as carpal tunnel syndrome, tennis elbow and injured knees. Deformities that occur in utero can lead to clubfoot, scoliosis or other orthopedic disorders.

"Without tendons, you wouldn’t be able to walk, eat or talk," says. Kuo. "Tendon injuries, disease and deformities acquired at birth or as an adult can cause extreme pain and disability. If we figure out how to either improve tendon healing or regenerate new tissues from stem cells, we will be able to help a lot of people, young and old."

The NSF-funded research will support. Kuo’s continuing work in tissue regeneration and development. Under provisions of the five-year grant,. Kuo will also continue to mentor undergraduate engineering students who pursue research projects in this area, and to enhance public awareness of science and engineering research via teaching activities at the Museum of Science in Boston.

 About Tufts School of Engineering

Located on Tufts' Medford/Somerville campus, the School of Engineering offers a rigorous engineering education in a unique environment that blends the intellectual and technological resources of a world-class research university with the strengths of a top-ranked liberal arts college. Close partnerships with Tufts' excellent undergraduate, graduate and professional schools, coupled with a long tradition of collaboration, provide a strong platform for interdisciplinary education and scholarship. The School of Engineering’s mission is to educate engineers committed to the innovative and ethical application of science and technology in addressing the most pressing societal needs, to develop and nurture twenty-first century leadership qualities in its students, faculty, and alumni, and to create and disseminate transformational new knowledge and technologies that further the well-being and sustainability of society in such cross-cutting areas as human health, environmental sustainability, alternative energy, and the human-technology interface.