Research & Innovation

Dr. Woo Lee Awarded NIH Grant for Microfluidic 3D Culture of Primary Osteocytes

Osteoporosis is a global public health problem that currently affects more than 200 million people worldwide, and bone metastases lead to 350,000 deaths every year in the U.S.  Using microfluidics technology and biomaterials, researchers at Stevens Institute of Technology will investigate methods for culturing osteocyte bone cells outside of the human body in an effort to better evaluate the efficacy of drugs used to treat such bone diseases.

The National Institutes of Health, National Institute Of Arthritis And Musculoskeletal And Skin Diseases, has recently awarded Principal Investigator Dr. Woo Lee, George Meade Bond Professor, Chemical Engineering & Materials Science, a grant that will focus on developing an in vitro microfluidic culture device, which can be used to reproduce the mechanotransduction function of osteocytes, cells that reside in cortical bone tissues.

Working with Dr. Antonio Valdevit at Stevens, Dr. Lee will collaborate with Dr. Jenny Zilberberg of the Hackensack University Medical Center, a Steven’s strategic partner in biomedical research, exemplifying the Stevens strategic priority, Through Collaboration, Impact.

If successful, the research team envisions that the microfluidic human 3D bone tissue technology may replace animal testing in preclinical evaluation of authentic human tissue response to drugs. For example, monoclonal antibodies are being actively pursued for treating osteoporosis and bone metastases caused by prostate and breast cancers and multiple myeloma.

Currently, there is no in vitro model that is capable of reproducing the physiological functions of osteocytes for routine use in biomedical research and preclinical drug evaluation. Also, a significant challenge remains for in vivo studies of osteocytes because the cells are deeply embedded within the bone and are, thus, difficult to access.  

“Our team is addressing this challenge through the combinative use of microfluidic and biomaterials technologies that will enable the ex vivo culture of primary osteocytes while maintaining their cellular functions for the first time to our best knowledge,” says Dr. Lee.

By comparing to existing mouse data, the team will scientifically validate the use of the microfluidic device as a novel and practical in vitro instrument for studying the fundamental biological mechanisms associated with osteocytes as master regulators of bone remodeling in the mouse system. The comparison is expected to generate new, significant insight for following developments to culture primary human osteocytes and extend the microfluidic device’s capability for simulating human bone remodeling that includes osteocyte-regulated bone formation and bone resorption.

Dr. Peter Tolias, Director of the Center for Healthcare Innovation, says that “the NIH project is one of several under active exploration at the Center to develop microfluidic human tissue models for preclinical drug evaluation as well as for personalized oncology using patient biopsies in collaboration with the Hackensack University Medical Center.” 

 “Our ultimate aims are to increase the success rate of new drug development efforts while reducing overall time and costs and increasing the survival rate of cancer patients,” says Dr. Tolias.

The Center for Healthcare Innovation

Advancing medical technology and improving healthcare delivery are among the world’s most urgent and complex challenges. Drawing on the activities of every School of Engineering & Science department—from biology to mechanical engineering to computer science—in addition to the work of key external partners and medical schools, faculty and student researchers associated with the Center for Healthcare Innovation drive advances that make such research possible.