Unlocking Biological Materials for Better Therapies

Researchers at Tufts’ Laboratory for Living Devices link materials like silk and paper with technology, medicine, and diagnostics

What exactly are living devices? They sound like they might come straight out of science fiction, but they are in fact being created at Tufts every day, from silk-based sensors attached to your teeth to monitor your diet to paper cards used to diagnose disease.

Now researchers at Tufts’ Laboratory for Living Devices (L²D) want to share the science behind their advances. They are hosting L²D Day, an interactive event that will be held on Thursday, November 7, from 2 to 4 p.m. in the atrium of the Science and Engineering Complex, 200 College Avenue, Medford.

The Tufts community is invited to hear faculty talk about their ongoing projects and meet L2D researchers who will demonstrate prototypes with applications in technology, medicine, diagnostics, and personalized health.

“Tufts is at the forefront in engineering biocompatible materials, and we thought, why not share our enthusiasm for what we’re doing,” said Fiorenzo Omenetto, the Frank C. Doble Professor of Engineering at the School of Engineering, who has pioneered silk as a platform for advanced technology with applications in photonics, optoelectronics, and nanotechnology. “We know we’re not alone in thinking that these products are very cool.”  

L²D Day is also intended, he said, to jumpstart conversations with students and other faculty that could lead to new collaborations. “With an informal and fun event like this, we want to plant a seed so that we can grow into something larger,” he said. “It’s like a town square, where we can bring people together who are curious about sustainable devices and who share our interests and our values.”

The Laboratory for Living Devices brings together research going on across the university that links the natural properties of paper and silk with technology. When technology and biology come together, “we can make materials do unexpected things,” Omenetto said. “All of us who work in the lab are people who like to live in the middle of that world of possibilities—and we are eager to share our expertise with each other. That exchange automatically informs directions, problems, solutions. It empowers creativity.”

“Biomaterials can be disruptive materials when we merge biology and technology in novel applications,” said Fiorenzo Omenetto. Photo: Alonso Nichols“Biomaterials can be disruptive materials when we merge biology and technology in novel applications,” said Fiorenzo Omenetto. Photo: Alonso Nichols

That creativity is in full throttle mode at Omenetto’s Silklab, where recent developments include silk materials that can wrinkle into detailed patterns, including words, textures, and images as intricate as a fingerprint. And earlier this year, in collaboration with David Kaplan, chair of biomedical engineering, researchers developed miniaturized sensors that can be directly attached to the surface of a tooth to monitor your diet.

It is not a stretch of the imagination, said Omenetto, to say that these advances can indeed “spark a revolution.” Revolutions, after all, are about disruption, “and biomaterials can also be disruptive materials when we merge biology and technology in novel applications.”   

A Model of Living Art

L²D Day will also illuminate the artistic possibilities of silk coming out of Tufts. An interactive display will feature four bioengineered tapestries that have been bridging the world of sustainable technology with the world of design.

Fabric screen-printed with a silk protein-based ink responds to changes in pH; when sprayed with different solutions, they change into vivid colors. The tapestries were first commissioned for an exhibition at Barcelona’s Design Museum, where it had millions of viewers; subsequent commissions by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation and Lineapelle Innovation Square have brought the tapestries to Athens and Milan.

“We are always asking, How can we bring these ideas to the world of everyday products and surprises,” said Laia Mogas-Soldevila, an architect and now a PhD candidate at the Silklab who designed the pieces with Giusy Matzeu, a research assistant professor in Biomedical Engineering at Tufts. “So far they have been a giant success; they are so aesthetically pleasing and fun. It will be a good exercise to see what the takeaway is from the Tufts audience.”

The Laboratory of Living Devices’ four founding faculty will be showcasing their work at individual tables. José Ordovás, director of the Nutrition and Genomics Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts (HNRCA), will talk about how his lab is responding to a growing need for personalized interventions—what’s called precision health. That need is driving his probe into gene-diet interactions in relation to cardiovascular diseases. 

Paper as a Biological Tool

Charlie Mace, an assistant professor of chemistry, and his team in the Mace Lab are focused on diagnostics. He’s using biomaterials like paper to design medical devices that are inexpensive, portable, and easy to use. One example: bioengineered paper cards that refine Dried Blood Spot testing. Dried blood specimens provide health care providers with the means to evaluate the presence—and persistence—of HIV-1 viruses and antibodies.

Mace will have on hand uniquely designed paper samples that promise to yield more subtle health information without expensive equipment—an improvement particularly valuable to caregivers in isolated regions of the developing world.

“I know in some people’s mind, they’re going to think, ‘it’s very low tech!’” he said. “But, as I say every time, you don’t need whistles and lasers to solve problems in the real world. Once they see these paper cards in action, and understand what we’re trying to do, they will start to appreciate why paper—why natural materials, why simplicity—matter.”

Bree Aldridge, an assistant professor of molecular biology and microbiology at the School of Medicine and adjunct assistant professor of biomedical engineering, will talk about her research work, which focuses on the global explosion in drug-resistant bacterial pathogens. Aldridge and her team are using biomaterials made of silk to engineer programmable diagnostic platforms—what Omenetto calls the “petri dishes of the future”—to fight antimicrobial resistance by gathering more detailed information about susceptibility to multiple drugs.

“Right now we get binary information—like a yes or no,” she said. “But we want a more detailed understanding of a strain’s tolerance to drug therapy. It’s the tolerance that causes treatment failure. Even if only a couple of bacteria survive, you haven’t cured the infection.”

Being part of the Laboratory of Living Devices, she said, has opened her up to new ways of thinking about medicine. “It’s been an incredible group of people to work with,” she said. “I’m not a material scientist, so to bring in that outside perspective allows you to step back and look at a problem in a totally different way.”

Hearing from colleagues studying nutrition or diagnostics describe their work, she said, “makes me realize that some of the same technological solutions to those problems could really crack open some of the issues that we have in microbiology. The technological solution is there to be adapted; we can just change the form factor just a little to unleash it for studying infectious diseases.”

Looking ahead, Aldridge hopes the public will come to the November 7 event and enjoy an event that, in the spirit of the Laboratory of Living Devices, is creative departure from the traditional poster session. “I hope people will ask engage us with their questions,” she said. “Maybe there are other problems we should be working on that will be our next step. We’ve done a lot of brainstorming in the first year, and our initial projects are starting to make some progress. It’s a good time for us to talk with people about our vision, and see where it can go.”

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