NIH diversity grant to fund student’s 3D bioprinting research

November 8, 2023

By Jamie Oberdick

Editor's note: This article originally appeared on Penn State News. 

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Bioprinted, lab-grown networks of blood vessels in tissue could advance research on a variety of vascular diseases that affect millions of people worldwide, according to Angie Castro, a doctoral student pursuing a degree in chemical engineering at Penn State. Castro works in the Bio-Soft Materials Laboratory (B-SMaL), where she focuses on 3D printing granular scaffolds for tissue engineering and regeneration to meet precise medical needs.   

Now, her work is supported by a new National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant awarded to her adviser and B-SMaL director, Amir Sheikhi, who is also the Huck Early Career Chair in Biomaterials and Regenerative Engineering, assistant professor of chemical engineering and of biomedical engineering. The $293,016 grant, called NIH Research Supplements to Promote Diversity in Health-Related Research, supplements a four-year, $3 million grant that Sheikhi and Dino Ravnic, Huck Chair in Regenerative Medicine and Surgical Sciences, associate professor of surgery at the Penn State College of Medicine and attending plastic surgeon at the Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, received earlier this year.   

Castro’s specific contribution to the project uses 3D bioprinting to arrange cells in a specific order, creating organized blood vessel structures in tissue to facilitate oxygen and nutrient delivery. These structures enable researchers to explore potential solutions for vascular diseases and test them with lab-grown blood vessels.  

“Millions of people suffer from vascular diseases such as atherosclerosis, hypertension and peripheral artery disease,” Castro said. “Bioprinting is an emerging sector of tissue engineering where these innovations can be translated for more reliable in vitro drug testing. By mimicking physiological conditions with tissue that includes bioprinted structured networks of blood vessels, these health concerns can be better studied and addressed in clinical settings.”  

Two gloved hands hold a bioprinted granular hydrogel that spells "PSU."

Researchers hold a bioprinted granular hydrogel that spells "PSU." Credit: Jennifer M. McCann/Materials Research Institute. All Rights Reserved. 

“My interest first peaked as a kid going to my dad’s medical appointments and learning about the procedures and recovery for his knee reconstruction,” Castro said. “With this interest and a drive for innovation, I found my niche in engineering biomaterials.”  

Beyond the potential of Castro’s research, Sheikhi said the grant he received is important because of how vital diversity is to STEM research.   

“Diversity isn't merely a trendy term or a checklist item; it mirrors our worldwide community," said Sheikhi, who is also affiliated with the Materials Research Institute. "To guarantee that the rewards of research progress are fairly shared and no community is overlooked, it's crucial for STEM disciplines to echo the varied societies they cater to. A diverse STEM team doesn't just fuel economic prosperity; more critically, it ensures that the perspectives and needs of a wider audience are taken into account when devising new technologies or approaches.”  

 According to Sheikhi, the benefits of STEM diversity can be found on multiple levels, including for individuals and the research team.   

 “STEM must be available for everyone, and a student’s background should not be a hurdle against success,” Sheikhi said. “Diverse teams, like what I am building in B-SMaL, bring together a variety of perspectives, experiences and approaches to problem solving. I am very excited about this award and am thankful to NIH and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute for their support because it will be a steppingstone for my lab's future efforts in weaving the foundations of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging with our research endeavors.” 


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