Biomedical engineering project aimed at improving diabetes treatment

November 21, 2013

In her synthetic biology lab, Karmella Haynes focuses much of her effort on developing better ways of exploring how human body cells work – or don’t work like they should. She’ll be applying her expertise in that area to a major new research endeavor to produce more effective treatments for diabetes.

The project is being undertaken by the national Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (SynBERC), which is supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF). SynBERC members include the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Harvard Medical School and Stanford University. karmella haynes pancreatic cells Download Full Image

Haynes became an affiliate researcher for the center as a result of the synthetic biology research she conducted at Harvard before joining Arizona State University, where she is an assistant professor in the School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering, one of ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.  

The NSF recently awarded her an $81,000 grant to support her role in the project. She will seek to develop more advanced synthetic monitors to track the development and health conditions of body cells.

In this case, Haynes will zero in on pancreatic islets cells – tiny clumps of cells in the pancreas that produce glucagon and insulin, which helps the body burn sugar and maintain blood sugar levels.

“When something goes wrong within these clumps of cells, you develop diseases such as diabetes,” she explains.

Diabetes is a major disabling and deadly disease that is projected to afflict about 300 million people by 2025, according to the World Health Organization.

Glucagon is a peptide hormone that the pancreas secretes. It raises blood glucose levels – the opposite of the function of insulin, which lowers blood glucose levels.

Haynes will grow pancreatic cells that produce glucagon and insulin in an artificial culture (outside the body), enabling her to study the effects of particular synthetic proteins and DNA on those cells.

In the past, such cell cultures have been grown on flat surfaces. Haynes will collaborate with labs at MIT to grow and study the cells in a three-dimensional translucent biomaterial.

Being able to make observations from a three-dimensional view “gives us a much more holistic view of how treatments affect the pancreatic islet tissue, and of ways we can genetically manipulate cells so a disease can be treated effectively,” she explains. “We can gain a deeper understanding of the proper growth process of that small mass of pancreatic cells that is critical in preventing development of diabetes.”

The cells themselves will be implanted with synthetic monitors capable of tracking changes in the chromosomal structure of the cells. That will give Haynes a precise look at various stages of cell development.

She will be designing the synthetic proteins that act as monitors, revealing “the molecular changes that occur in the cells as they grow” and allowing her “to manipulate the states of the cells to maintain healthy pancreatic tissue.”

The DNA-based monitoring device signals what it finds by glowing – enabled by the use of a genetically encoded fluorescent protein that the monitor can produce.

“We can engineer the DNA-based monitor so that when the chromosome structure of the cells changes, the monitor is tripped and starts producing a green fluorescent protein,” Haynes explains. “Certain changes in chromosome structure can promote cell viability or cause cell death.”

The process enables close tracking of the condition of the coiled material in the chromosomal structure of pancreatic cells. If the coils become too loose or too condensed, they can interfere with insulin production or other proper functions of the pancreas.

Haynes’ says one of her project‘s goals is “revealing the physics underlying the coiling and uncoiling of these strands of DNA” and using that knowledge to “design small proteins that go into cells and actually control the coiling and uncoiling of DNA so that the pancreas islets have plenty of cells that are producing proper levels of insulin.”

A portion of her NSF grant will support students in getting hands-on lab experience. One undergraduate and one graduate student will be part of Haynes’ SynBERC project research team.

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


Dell student assistants learn sustainability hands-on

November 22, 2013

When you work in a field like sustainability, it’s not just what you know, it’s what you do that matters. That’s why Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability encourages all of its undergraduates to gain as much experience as possible – including at least one internship – during their course of study.

These students are learning new skills, applying classroom knowledge, and assuming professional responsibilities and substantive tasks. Hands-on experience is a key differentiator for sustainability graduates entering the job market. Download Full Image

One hands-on learning opportunity takes advantage of a unique relationship between Dell and the School of Sustainability. Students get to join Dell’s sustainability team as hourly student workers.

Students work from a shared office space in Wrigley Hall. There, they are coached and mentored by Bruno Sarda, director of global sustainability operations at Dell, and adjunct faculty at the school.

Sarda explains that the value of the program is in the nature of the work. Student sustainability assistants complete ongoing projects, collaborate with other Dell employees and juggle priorities in an intense, corporate sustainability environment. Future employers find that really valuable.

According to Sarda, students learn to be nimble and agile. They apply what they know, and they learn that productivity and initiative matter. “Students coming out of this program gain experience and skills that are highly marketable,” Sarda says.

That ability to market oneself paid off for Jaleila “Jill” Brumand. Brumand (class of 2013) is a Fulbright recipient, and her applied work with Dell helped strengthen her Fulbright application. “Jill was my point person on anything related to carbon,” says Sarda. At Dell, Brumand examined the emissions created through the company’s supply chain, employee commute and other sources.

“Different organizations want reports from Dell to understand their environmental targets and policies, and that was my everyday task,” says Brumand. “But I also had pet projects, like the annual carbon disclosure report for Dell. Through that task, I became familiar with the Carbon Disclosure Project in the UK and gained a greater understanding of multi-national scale emissions projects,” a familiarity that contributed heavily to the success of her Fulbright application.

Sustainability alumnus Kevin Zeck (class of 2013) has a similar story. He’s now a sustainability analyst for IO. Sarda says, “Kevin competed with dozens of candidates for that job. Many had experience, but Kevin had already done the kind of work they were looking for.”

Since the program’s inception two and a half years ago, more than 15 individuals have participated in the Dell program. The jobs, while not tied to semesters, have ranged in duration from one semester up to 18 months. Four to six students at any given time may be employed as sustainability assistants, and there are typically one to two openings each semester. Because salaries are paid by ASU and the students work on campus, international students are also eligible to participate.

Student sustainability assistants may get to interact with supply chain management teams in China, business teams in Latin America, employees from within Dell and people outside Dell, as well. “They do it well,” says Sarda. “These students are amazingly capable.”

“Bruno throws you in and supports you,” says Brumand. “It was a great experience for me.”

Michelle Schwartz

Senior Manager, Marketing and Communications, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability