UC biomedical engineering student researches nerve regeneration through protege program

First year student is spending his summer working with bioengineered materials that facilitate healing

Braden DeVine, first year biomedical engineering student at the University of Cincinnati, is spending his summer investigating ways to help people with peripheral nerves injuries regain functional recovery by using bioengineered materials that facilitate healing.

Peripheral nerve injuries impact 1.4 million Americans each year; over 20 million people living with the effects of traumatic nerve injuries. In some severe peripheral nerve injuries, the capacity for functional recovery is extremely limited. The loss of connections between the central nervous system and the body’s extremities deeply impacts the patient’s subsequent quality of life.

Greg Harris, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering in UC's College of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Cincinnati (UC), supervises a lab that systematically examines injury and disease states, and uses engineering tools to understand and build viable clinical solutions to conditions like peripheral nerve injuries.

This summer, DeVine joined Harris’s lab team through the protégé undergraduate research program, which connects outstanding CEAS students to work with leading CEAS research faculty in their labs during the summer after their first year.

“Within biomedical engineering, I have always been interested in the neurology side, the nitty gritty of physiology and biology. This project with Dr. Harris was a good match,” DeVine said.

The interconnectivity between chemical engineering and biomedical engineering attracts students from both majors to Harris’ lab. Harris, who holds a secondary appointment in biomedical engineering, said, “There is a lot of crossover [in tissue engineering]—it is a natural connection. When I came to UC a year ago, I planned on a lot of collaboration among our departments.”

Led by Harris, DeVine is studying the interactions between cells and the extracellular matrix, and exploring how biomaterials can aid that communication.

One primary reason for poor functional recoveries is that the neurons do not have the proper guidance and signaling from the damaged extracellular matrix to allow targeted growth across the injured tissue. The extracellular matrix is a collection of extracellular molecules (part of a multicellular organism that is outside the cells proper), a scaffolding that provides both physical and chemical signaling and support to all cells in the body.

The project aims to create micropatterned polymers for guidance and to combine with a natural, extracellular matrix to facilitate regeneration and nerve guidance. Harris hypothesizes that a bioactive, aligned polymer will functionally bridge the injury gap and guide neurons along scaffolds to restore function to the injured tissue.

This project will address the urgent need to engineer bioactive materials to guide nerve regeneration to promote functional recoveries in traumatic nerve injuries. These engineered polymers must possess the physical and chemical signals necessary to direct cell and extracellular matrix alignment and growth.

I have a new understanding of how to put all the research data and figures together in a way that people can understand. That is really the goal—once you have results, you can spread them to others.

Braden DeVine, UC biomedical engineering student

DeVine appreciates the scope of professional and academic skills he learned in the lab that prepared him to translate this research to a wider audience: “Now I have an entirely new understanding of how to put all the research data and figures together in a way that people can understand. That is really the goal—once you have results, you can spread them to others,” DeVine said.

Harris said that DeVine’s presence brought fresh ideas to the lab and gave him perspective as an educator sharing his own research methods: “His questions help me teach better and reminded me what is important for new students in the lab to know and learn,” said Harris.

DeVine feels confident moving into his second year, prepared with new skills and an awareness for what lies ahead in on his career path. “Before the protégé program, I had never anticipated a career in research. This experience showed me what research involves, and that I am interested in it. I never would have known this otherwise, as a first year student,” he said.

For more information on tissue engineering research at UC or the CEAS protégé undergraduate research program opportunities, please visit the CEAS website.

Featured image at top: Greg Harris (right) instructs Braden DeVine on the procedures under the bio hood. Photo/Corrie Stookey/UC CEAS.

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The University of Cincinnati is classified as a Research 1 institution by the Carnegie Commission and is ranked in the National Science Foundation's Top-35 public research universities. UC's students, alumni and faculty investigate problems and innovate solutions with real-world impact. Next Lives Here.

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