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UW’s Oakey to Use NSF CAREER Award to Research Regeneration of Structural Tissues

July 10, 2013
Man and woman using microscope
John Oakey, UW assistant professor of chemical and petroleum engineering, recently received an NSF CAREER Award. He is pictured with Jia Yao, a chemical and petroleum engineering student from China. (John Barrett Photo)

John Oakey wants to make tissue engineering and regenerative medicine more effective and widespread for applications such as rebuilding damaged knee cartilage. The University of Wyoming researcher will soon receive a large funding source that will assist him.

Oakey, a UW assistant professor of chemical and petroleum engineering, was the recent recipient of the National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program Award. The Division of Chemical, Bioengineering, Environmental and Transport Systems (CBET) within the NSF recommended Oakey for the award, which totals $400,071.

He will receive the funding Sept. 1. Budgeted over five years, the award will pay for equipment, supplies and salaries for a graduate student and two undergraduate students, Oakey says.

The CAREER Program offers the NSF’s most prestigious awards in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research. Only assistant professors without tenure are eligible. The CAREER Program is intended for faculty members who are at or near the beginning of their careers.

Cracking the cartilage conundrum

Because cartilage doesn’t regenerate well, it doesn’t heal. Rather, damaged and lost cartilage can create the genesis for osteoarthritis, Oakey says. Osteoarthritis, which affects an estimated 27 million Americans over age 25 (National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases statistics), results in joint pain and cartilage inflammation and limits joint mobility.

“This project focuses upon biomaterials and cell types that are appropriate for the regeneration of structural tissues, such as cartilage and bone, but will ultimately be applicable to a variety of therapeutic scenarios,” Oakey says.

Oakey will develop miniaturization techniques and devices designed to rapidly assess cell encapsulation (immobilization of living cells) within tissue-like biomaterials. This information will be employed to strategically build implantable hydro-gel tissue scaffolds to assist in native tissue regeneration.

Synthetic tissue scaffolds serve two functions, Oakey says. First, once the scaffold is implemented, it immediately restores the function of the tissue that was injured. Second, the scaffold serves as a support for the cells (encapsulated within the tissue-like biomaterials) to grow.

“Cells need an environment in which they can survive, proliferate and produce native tissue,” Oakey says. “The scaffold eventually degrades and is resorbed by the body.”

However, it is this transition period of healing that Oakey describes as a “tricky period of time.”

“What can go wrong?” he says. “Cells die. Cells can differentiate into very different types of cells. The scaffold can fall apart before the native tissue is fully assembled.”

As a result, Oakey plans to closely study a dilemma that can arise between a synthetic material’s diffusive conductivity and its mechanical strength. A material’s diffusive conductivity describes how well it transports oxygen and other dissolved gases, nutrients and waste products, Oakey says.

His interest in the subject brings together his background in materials and his interest in the life sciences. Oakey says he likes to work “at the interfaces between different disciplines.”

“My research, while diverse, tends to all be very interdisciplinary,” Oakey says.

Oakey received his doctoral and master’s degrees in chemical engineering, both from the Colorado School of Mines. He received his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Penn State University. He also was a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Engineering in Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School and a postdoctoral fellow at Shriners Burns Hospital in Boston.

“I think it’s a fascinating field because it’s inherently complex, but it’s the future of medicine,” Oakey says of tissue regeneration. “There’s a lot of room for new creations, innovations and solutions.”

Spreading the knowledge

NSF CAREER Award stipulations require the award recipient to include an educational outreach component as part of receiving the grant money. Oakey says the educational goals of this proposal are to develop and introduce microfluidic devices for laboratory and demonstration use at the university, high school and elementary school levels. Microfluidics deals with the behavior, precise control and manipulation of fluids that are geometrically constrained to a sub-millimeter scale.

Initially, the focus will be to develop a capstone chemical engineering unit operations laboratory centered on microfluidic experiments. Subsequently, the microfluidic devices will be modified for demonstration use with existing outreach programs in Wyoming K-12 schools, he says.

“We’ll take some tools we’ve developed, devices that allow the student to look through a small, inexpensive microscope to see what’s happening.” Oakey says, displaying a small piece of glass with a layer of silicone mounted on top of it.

Oakey is partnering with members of UW’s Science Posse to create experiments in which the necessary materials can be mailed to any school in Wyoming. He also has obtained a small clamp that can securely hook an iPhone or iPad camera to a microscope, and make the lessons interactive, even over long distances.

“You can turn on the camera. The teacher can project onto the wall for the whole the class to see what’s going on under the microscope,” Oakey says. “At the same time, I can be sitting in Laramie and see what’s going on, using my iPad or computer.”

While Oakey hopes his research eventually can be used to alleviate real pain in others, he doesn’t rule out he may end up helping himself one day.

“I do like to ski, so the writing’s on the wall,” he says with a laugh.

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