Carnegie Mellon University
July 16, 2015

GEM4 Summer Institute

students in lab with 3D model

Printing soft tissue to mimic mechanics of a human brain sounds like something out of science fiction. But through interdisciplinary collaboration, the idea could someday become a reality.

The idea that crossing boundaries can find connections to investigate the mechanobiology of the brain is what drove this year's recent Global Enterprise for Micro-Mechanics and Molecular Medicine (GEM4) Summer Institute. The program brings together nearly 50 graduate students, researchers and faculty experts in the fields of biology, engineering, neuroscience, imaging, chemistry and medicine.

Carnegie Mellon University President Subra Suresh founded GEM4 in 2005 as a way to understand and address human diseases at the global scale by working at the intersection of science, engineering and public health.

The lecturers come from a number of prestigious schools including Columbia University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Indian Institute of Science, the National University of Singapore, Rice University, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of Oxford, University of Pittsburgh and University of Pennsylvania.

"This is about training future generations of researchers in this area and exposing them to both lab work and international speakers," said Philip LeDuc, the William J. Brown Professor of Mechanical Engineering, director of the Center for the Mechanics and Engineering of Cellular Systems and coordinator of this year's institute. "I wish I had something like this when I was a student."

This was the first time the Carnegie Mellon University hosted the institute and that participants focused on the neuroscience. Along with LeDuc and Adam Feinberg from the College of Engineering, CMU participants included faculty from the Mellon College of Science and the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

LeDuc said that the program is designed to educate researchers and graduate students about the fundamentals of neuroscience and cellular mechanics as well as provide an intense learning experience to facilitate interaction among engineers, biologists and clinicians. While at CMU the participants learned about neuron cultures, live cell imaging, micro/nano fabrication and 3-D printing. These labs provided true hands-on experiences in cutting-edge scientific techniques and were taught by a talented group of CMU graduate students from engineering and biology.

Feinberg, an associate professor in the departments of Biomedical Engineering and Materials Science Engineering, shared with the participants how his group focuses on engineering protein scaffolds for tissue repair.

During hands-on lab sessions, members of Feinberg's research group trained students on several techniques including micrcocontact printing and their latest approach to printing tissues using soft materials such as collagen gel, which enables the engineering of brain-like structures with the same mechanical properties as neural tissue.

"It was really interesting to see the students think about how our methods could be applied to the problems in neuroscience and brain injury they learned about during the course," Feinberg said.

Manojkumar Puthenveedu, an associate professor in CMU's Department of Biological Sciences, was a presenter, and said that the participants all had high quality work, which also was reflected in the questions that were asked during the workshop.

"These questions were very forward thinking, about the future of the project, the disciplines, and the field," Puthenveedu said. "It was fun to see that the questions became more integrative across the disciplines as the workshop went on."

Marcel Just, the D.O. Hebb University Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, also presented during the program.

"The workshop participants had excellent technical knowledge and were enthusiastic about applying it to cognitive functioning of the brain," Just said. "It's always engaging to think about human thought emerging from 3 pounds of brain tissues."

Practical applications from the work could assist with improving patients affected by concussions resulting from sports injuries, neural damage from improvised explosive devices and shaken baby syndrome.

While the participants were in Pittsburgh, they spent time at CMU's laboratories and the UPMC Center for Sports Medicine.

CMU's BrainHub℠ initiative, a sponsor of this year's institute, builds on the university's strengths in biology, computer science, psychology, statistics, neuroscience and engineering. The global initiative focuses on how the structure and activity of the brain give rise to complex behaviors and dovetails with GEM4.

"GEM4 focused on bringing together a set of young and established scientists from various disciplines, many outside 'traditional' neuroscience, to discuss key problems in mechanobiology of the brain." Puthenveedu said.  "The overall goal was to train the next generation of scientists to think about neurobiology using multiscale and interdisciplinary approaches. This aligns perfectly with BrainHub's goal to integrate engineering and technology-based approaches to study the brain; and the students and participants represented the key areas — biology, neuroscience, psychology, statistics and engineering — that are the focus of the BrainHub."