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Washington University receives funding for research that could change medicine and agriculture

Wyss Institute at Harvard University
The new Science and Technology Center for Engineering MechanoBiology will use technologies like this "organ-on-a-chip" developed by Harvard University.

Washington University in St. Louis has been awarded a nearly $24 million grant from the National Science Foundation to open a research center that could develop solutions in medicine and agriculture. 

The Science and Technology Center for Engineering MechanoBiology involves eight faculty members from Wash U. They will be joined by faculty from University of Pennsylvania, Boston University and other institutions.

Mechanobiology is an emerging field of research that focuses on the mechanical forces that influence how plant and animal cells function and using them to engineer real-world applications. For example, when a person lifts weights, that influences cells in muscles to make them stronger.  

The research conducted by Washington University scientists will largely consider how the approach can be used to treat cancer and support crops.

Guy Genin, a mechanical engineering professor and a co-director of the new research center, said that there will never be a chemical cure for cancer. However, understanding the mechanisms that cause cancer cells to spread could help scientists find a way to stop the metastasis, he said. 

"If we can control cells, if we can learn to give mechanical signals that attracts them to a single location, attracts them back into a tumor or stop them from moving, then we have a much broader set of cures for a whole range of cancers," Genin said.

Understanding mechanisms in plant cells could lead to higher yields among crops. For example, a 2014 study from the University of Missouri-Columbia found that playing recordings of caterpillars chewing on leaves to plants caused them to release toxins to defend themselves

"What we'd like to do is to be able to understand the phenomena," Genin said. "What are the 'ears' of a plant? How do we control a plant? How do we modify a plant to respond to new insect herbivores that invade as the environment changes?" 

To conduct research towards such applications, scientists will be using "lab-on-a-chip" technology, in which a plant or an organ, is modeled on a chip-like device.  Genin said he hopes to use a heart-on-a-chip to screen drugs to treat cardio toxicity, heart problems associated with chemotherapy.

Follow Eli Chen on Twitter: @StoriesByEli

Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.