Winter 2017
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Downing 30 under 30

Grace O'Connell has your back

A conversation with Professor Grace O’Connell, UC Berkeley Department of Mechanical Engineering, on our current understanding of soft tissue injury..

O'ConnellWhat large problem is your research trying to solve, and what is your general approach?

Our general topic is soft tissue injury. Usually we look at the intervertebral disc, which is what allows the mobility and flexibility of the spine. There are some injury mechanisms, such as a herniated disc, where that tissue fails, and we’re looking at why and how it fails.

We really don’t understand what happens at failure, or even how this tissue fails, because it’s very difficult to replicate that failure in the laboratory. In the real world we sprain tendons and ligaments all the time, so in some respects, it’s easier to cause tissue failure the body than in the laboratory.

We work at multiple scales, both at the tissue and sub-tissue levels, to see if there are changes with injury or with aging that makes one person more likely than another to experience disc herniation.

tissue failureMy laboratory takes a very mechanical engineering approach. We look at tissue failure properties in tension, both experimentally and using computational models, to be able to understand on a small scale what we’re seeing with the experimental data.

What specific work in your lab is exciting right now?

We’re very interested in the extra-fibrillar matrix right now. Most fiber-reinforced soft tissues have collagen fibers, and we often think about the collagen fibers as being the most important component. The surrounding extra-fibrillar matrix (EFM) is often ignored, because it is a relatively smaller component.

What we’ve found in our experiments is that the EFM is actually very important for failure mechanics, not before, but during failure. When you remove this matrix the tissue properties don’t change, but it does cause the tissue to fail sooner.

Most previous studies have only looked at sub-failure properties, and with no difference in sub-failure properties we thought the EFM doesn’t seem to have a crucial role. What we’re finding is that it does have an important role, but not before failure.

What are some possible applications of this work?

We don’t know yet how this will play out in treatment and prevention, but it’s an important part of understanding the system. We’ve developed these things with the spine in mind, but were realizing a broader application to other fiber-reinforced tissues, in tendons and ligaments.

Toward the development of better repair materials, we’re hoping to team up with tissue engineering researchers that are building fiber-reinforced tissues and examine how well those tissues replicate the failure behavior of native healthy tissues.

We’re also looking at a tissue analogue model using 3D printing. It can be very difficult with animal or human tissue to understand all of the different components that are working. To create your own analogous model can be very beneficial for controlling the density of collagen fibers, or the density of the EFM. We’re exploring potential uses for bioprinting.

What are the up-and-coming areas of research in this field?

More accurate modeling is becoming important. With increased computational power and the abilities of finite element modeling, we’re able to model sub-tissue properties as separate materials, which is something very new in the field and giving us more information about the failure mechanisms.

On the experimental side, there are researchers trying to develop fiber-reinforced engineered tissues, however we don’t really know the native properties we’re trying to replace. I think as tissue engineering becomes something that is looked at as a potential clinical application, we really need to understand the native tissue better.

Where are Berkeley and UCSF in this field?

In addition to several faculty here in Mechanical Engineering, there are more folks at UCSF to collaborate with, including Jeff Lotz and Tamara Alliston. Between Berkeley and UCSF, our graduate program contains a lot of the expertise in this field.

Mini Profile:
Colin Walsh, 2012

Walsh1. What do you do now?
I am a Senior Associate on the Life Sciences team at NanoDimension, an early-stage venture capital fund. I am responsible for identifying and analyzing new investment opportunities, structuring and executing financings, and managing our portfolio companies after our initial investment.

2. What is important to you, and how does your work have impact in that area?
I am passionate about translating early, breakthrough science and technologies into products that help solve important problems in human health and disease. I get most excited working on things that are counterintuitive or orthogonal to generally held beliefs, or where some new insight or development could completely change how things are done. As a VC, I am extremely fortunate to be able to work with some of the most talented people in the world to build companies that do these things across a broad range of very exciting areas. 

3. What is one tip, trick or practice that helps you succeed?
Stay curious and keep an open mind - you never know where the next big idea will come from.

2017 Retreat

The annual Bioengineering Graduate Program retreat will be held October 6-8, at Granlibakken, Lake Tahoe. Please join us!

Save the date for the alumni bash

The next Berkeley BioE Alumni Summer Bear Bash will be the evening of June 3 at the New Bear's Lair on the Berkeley campus. All graduate program alumni are welcome!

UCSF Alumni Weekend

Alumni weekend 2017 will be April 7-8, 2017. Register and learn more online.

Ten faculty named Chan Zuckerberg Biohub Investigators

UCSF faculty Adam Abate, Hana El-Samad, Zev Gartner, Bo Huang, and Tanja Kortemme, and Berkeley faculty Dan Fletcher, Amy Herr, Michel Maharbiz, Aaron Streets, and Ke Xu have been named to the inaugural class of Investigators in the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub. UCSF Professor Joe DeRisi is the UCSF lead investigator.

Alumni startup Diassess featured in Wired

John Waldeisen, BioE PhD and CEO and Co-founder of Diassess, talks with Wired about the diagnostic tech landscape post-Theranos.

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