Elizabeth L. Dirk, an assistant professor in the University of New Mexico Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, has been awarded a $400,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award.

This funding will support research on heart valve tissue engineering, as well as the development of programs to encourage students to pursue biomedical engineering.

The CAREER award is NSF’s most prestigious award in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education, and the integration of education and research within the community. Such activities should build a firm foundation for a lifetime of leadership in integrating education and research.

The grant, which began July 1, 2014, and runs through June 30, 2019, will be used to research heart value tissue engineering with the aim of providing suitable living tissue equivalents for the treatment of valve disease. In addition, diseased-like models will also be developed to study the onset and progression of heart valve disease, leading to preventative and early treatments for those with this life-threatening disease.

Research will focus on heart valve disease
“If we can create these disease states, we can work to understand the initiation, onset, and progress of heart valve disease,” said Dirk, who also holds a faculty position in UNM’s College of Pharmacy.

Dirk says that research on regeneration of the aortic heart valve is relatively new, and much is yet to be discovered. It was only about 20 years ago that researchers discovered that the cell makeup of the aortic heart valve is different than the cell makeup of the rest of the heart. Studies have also found that in individuals prone to heart valve disease, healthy valvular cells become dysfunctional and begin to produce bone nodules in the valves. This in hard tissue build up stiffens the valve and restricts blood flow to the rest of the body, limiting a patient’s quality of life, eventually leading to death.

Dirk and her team will investigate physical and chemical factors that influence the behavior of these heart valve cells to learn more about how to promote healthy cell and tissue growth.

“We want to learn how to keep these cells in a healthy state, produce and maintain appropriate tissue, and prevent disease progression,” she said.

By learning more about the characteristics of healthy cells and their response to local environmental cues, better treatment for those with the disease could emerge.

“We would like to be able to create living, functional tissue for heart valve replacement,” she said. “There are a lot of limitations with the current treatment that uses acellular pig valves or metal valves for valve replacement, including a practical lifespan of only 10 to 15 years.”

The generation of living, functional valve implants will allow for integration with the surrounding heart structure, leaving no seam, Dirk said.

“This complete incorporation of the implant with the existing heart tissue will reduce the negative consequences of non-cellular implants that fail to grow and repair.”

In addition to her work on aortic heart valves, Dirk’s research continues to explore the development of biocompatible, biodegradable polymer scaffolds for bone tissue engineering. Her program involves both the synthesis of novel polymers and the development of unique scaffold fabrication methods. She said this research relates well to the heart valve research, in that both deal with bone-like, mechanically-loaded structures.

Community outreach to budding scientists
In addition to the research component, the grant will also fund extensive community outreach to budding scientists and engineers in New Mexico.

The grant will support a variety of programs focusing on increasing problem-based learning techniques for Albuquerque Public Schools. Dirk and her graduate and undergraduate students will develop programs that educate K-12 students and their teachers about biomedical engineering through classroom visits, lab tours, mentoring, and internships. A special focus will be on Title I schools that serve primarily underrepresented groups, as well as the nex+Gen Academy, a magnet high school that focuses on problem-based learning.

The program will enable four science teachers to work in Dirk’s lab in the Center for Biomedical Engineering each summer, learning about biomedical engineering so that the teachers can bring what they learn back to their students. In collaboration with Dirk, APS teachers will perform research as well as develop new classroom curriculum that can be shared throughout the school system.

At the college level, Dirk will be involved heavily in the creation of a Ph.D.-level track in the Biomedical Engineering graduate program focusing on biomechanics, biomaterials, and tissue engineering, She will be developing of a new course, Tissue Engineering, to support this effort. This program will be the first university program with this focus in the state.

The NSF CAREER program is geared toward helping early-career faculty get strong starts on their academic careers. Dirk said the award will go a long way toward supporting and further developing her research.