Clark School Undergrads Look to Improve Grafts for Small Blood Vessels

More than one dozen Gemstone Honors students – including six Fischell Department of Bioengineering (BioE) students – have set off on a mission to create viable grafts for small-diameter blood vessels using silk fibroin, a material that could prevent many of the problems to which engineered grafts implanted into small blood vessels are prone.

“We want to design an electrospun silk fibroin vascular graft with enhanced biochemical and mechanical properties,” said Glory Mgboji, a Biochemistry major.

In a perfect world, cardiac bypass, a procedure frequently used to treat cardiovascular disease, is best performed with the patient’s own tissue. Unfortunately for many patients, however, this option isn’t available, so surgeons must rely on engineered grafts to mimic the patient’s native tissue.

Recognizing the challenges associated with implanting engineered grafts into small-diameter blood vessels, the multi-disciplinary undergraduate team – known as Team VESSEL – is looking to create grafts by biochemically modifying silk fibroin. Using this material offers promise that the engineered graft could improve in both strength and biocompatibility.  

Comprised of 13 students, faculty mentor Associate Professor Adam Hsieh (BioE), and University of Shady Grove Priddy Library Life Sciences Librarian Eileen Harrington, Team VESSEL hopes to find the perfect combination of nanofibrous, small-diameter vascular tissue scaffolding techniques that would prove effective in mimicking innate vessels. As such, their project involves extracting silk fibroin from silk worms, electrospinning the extracted fibroin, and enhancing these silk grafts through the addition of specific coatings and growth factors.

One of the challenges Team VESSEL looks to address is that of blood clots, which are capable of causing heart attacks or strokes. To tackle this challenge, Team VESSEL looks to create a graft that can be strong, yet small, so clotting does not occur in the graft.

“Anybody can be a victim of cardiovascular disease, so it is essential that surgeons discover better grafts to improve the healing process,” the team said.

The research stage of the team’s proposal began in the fall of 2014, and the team hopes to publish its final proposal, after much research and experimentation, in the spring of 2017. 

Team liaison, Adam Berger (BioE), explained, “We’ve already begun developing our first graft prototype. Creating these graphs requires a multitude of materials from a bath of silk worm extracted silk to solutions to dialysis cassettes.”

In efforts to purchase materials the materials needed to further their mission, Team VESSEL has started a UMD Launch campaign to raise $5,000. To date, they are nearly three-fourths of the way to meeting their fundraising goal.

The team’s members are: Adam Berger (BioE), Amy Zhou (Biochemistry and Economics), Angelina Nou (BioE), Casey Lim (BioE), Devayani Srinivasan (BioE), Glory Mgboji (Biochemistry), Irene Jones (Mechanical Engineering), Marquise Singleterry (Biochemistry), Megan Dang (BioE), Mina Al-Salihi (Biology), Moli Karsalia (Biology), Phillip Tran (BioE), and Sherin Menachery (Neurobiology and Physiology). 

Emilie Berman contributed to this article.

Published November 12, 2015