Bioelectronic Innovations, Empowered by Chemistry

Bioelectronic Innovations, Empowered by Chemistry

UD Professor Laure Kayser received an NSF CAREER award to further her group’s materials science research

Whether it’s a smartwatch that can detect irregular heartbeats or a continuous glucose monitor, electronics that can interface with biology have already started to revolutionize the future of healthcare. But while the potential of these devices is far-reaching, the materials that make up future bioelectronics have to meet several different criteria — such as not causing damage or irritation to skin and avoiding toxic metals, for example.

Creating new organic, biocompatible materials that can interface with living systems is Laure Kayser, assistant professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Delaware’s College of Engineering. Now, thanks to an award from the National Science Foundation (NSF), she and members of her lab will continue their fundamental research on a new class of polymers that could pave the way for future applications in human health.

The Kayser Lab specializes in designing, synthesizing and characterizing new plastics and polymers that can conduct electricity while safely interfacing with living systems. By working at the intersection of chemistry, polymer science and materials engineering, her lab is able to develop innovative design and synthesis approaches for creating new types of plastic materials.

Kayser, who holds a joint appointment in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in the College of Arts and Sciences, said that what sets her group apart from others in the field of organic bioelectronics is a strong foundation in organic chemistry and their ability to make any material they want instead of only being limited to what’s currently available.

“We do modern chemistry, including chemistry that is not necessarily typically used in the field, and apply it to materials science,” said Kayser. “Because we have a background in chemistry and synthesis, we can make any material, characterize it, establish structure-property relationships and tailor it so the material can be interfaced with biology.”

Design rules for electronic highways and ionic waves

Starting in July, Kayser’s group will be investigating a new type of organic bioelectronic material. With a five-year, $654,206 Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) award from NSF, her lab will study the fundamental properties of polymers that have properties inspired by living systems and also meet the criteria for being able to be incorporated into bioelectronic devices.

For this project, the lab will be studying derivatives of PEDOT:PSS. This polymer belongs to a class of materials known as organic mixed ionic electronic conductors, which have the unique ability to conduct both electrons and ions.

This is a necessary yet difficult to achieve property for bioelectronics: Typical electronic devices, such as laptops or cell phones, use electrons to transmit signals, while systems in biology, such as nerves, use ions. This difference in communication methods makes it difficult to “translate” signals from electronic devices into ones that a cell or organ can interpret.

Laure Kayser (right), an assistant professor in the College of Engineering’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering and doctoral candidate Vidhika Damani working in the lab with PEDOT:PSS, a polymer with the unique ability to conduct both electrons and ions.

Laure Kayser (right), an assistant professor in the College of Engineering’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering and doctoral candidate Vidhika Damani working in the lab with PEDOT:PSS, a polymer with the unique ability to conduct both electrons and ions.

There are also engineering challenges in creating this class of materials, Kayser explained. “There are very different design rules whether you want a material to be an electronic conductor or an ionic conductor,” she said. “For example, electronic conductors are very well ordered — like a highway for electrons to travel down. But if you want to make a good ionic conductor, ions usually like to be on a floppy, almost liquid environment, so more like a wave.”

Members of the Kayser lab, including doctoral students Chun-Yuan Lo, Vidhika Damani, Dan My Nguyen, and Elorm Awuyah, were instrumental in getting preliminary results for the proposed research. The team recently published a paper in Polymer Chemistry (which was also featured on the journal’s May 21st 2022 cover), where they determined the role of different chemical properties in PEDOT:PSS and how they could be changed to make the material more efficient in bioelectronic devices, a key finding that showcased how the group’s expertise in this field could be applied to PEDOT:PSS.

Through the CAREER award, the lab will continue studying derivatives of PEDOT:PSS to gain a solid, fundamental understanding of how to control both electronic and ionic conduction. The long-term goal is to develop design rules for fabricating bioelectronic devices with this class of materials in the future.

“Our lab’s focus is to understand deeply how chemical structures affect the electronic properties of those materials,” said Kayser. “Through this grant, we’re going to learn a lot about these materials — some of these ideas might fail, but we’ll learn something along the way.”

Materials science outreach and education

With this CAREER award, Kayser will also be leading different outreach and educational initiatives for both high school students and undergraduates.

Part of this work will include connecting with female students at local high schools. This will be done through both a materials science-focused outreach program as well as a mentorship program, where graduate students and senior undergraduate students will be paired with high school students to provide support throughout the college application process.

Researchers in Laure Kayser’s lab recently published a paper in Polymer Chemistry (featured on the May 21st 2022 cover) where they determined the role of different chemical properties in PEDOT:PSS and how they can be changed to make the material more efficient in bioelectronic devices.

Researchers in Laure Kayser’s lab recently published a paper in Polymer Chemistry (featured on the May 21st 2022 cover) where they determined the role of different chemical properties in PEDOT:PSS and how they can be changed to make the material more efficient in bioelectronic devices.

Kayser will also be working with Sheldon Hewlett, an assistant professor who leads instruction and teaching in the materials science and engineering department, on integrating research into undergraduate curriculum. With support from the CAREER award, junior year materials science students will conduct a polymerization of PEDOT:PSS, including synthesis, purification and characterization, as part of a laboratory module. There will also be opportunities for students to address additional research questions during the course module, as well as funded research programs for those who are interested in carrying their work into the summer.

Along with introducing students to the process of polymerization, Hewlett added that this project will allow students to work with a class of materials in a laboratory course that they are likely to encounter in their career. “Not only will this award give us an opportunity for students to do real research, but it also provides students with a novel material system to work with,” said Hewlett. “You don’t see a lot of lab courses working with these polymers at this level — of making a material from start to finish, and then characterizing it afterwards.”

Making new discoveries through ‘great fundamental science’

“Chemistry will be central to the discoveries that Laure Kayser’s research group will advance on plastics and other polymeric materials through this NSF CAREER award,” said Joel Rosenthal, professor and chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. “Rather than simply tweaking or studying materials that already exist, the Kayser lab is adept at leveraging synthetic chemistry to discreetly control the composition, and by extension, the properties of new polymers for various applications, including bioelectronics. I’m incredibly excited to see how her group’s work will continue to develop over the next several years.”

Joshua Zide, professor and chair of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, added, “Professor Kayser is a fantastic contributor to the Materials Science and Engineering Department, and we are lucky to have her. Her research translates the chemistry to myriad important applications, and the perspective she brings is a huge benefit to the whole department.”

While Kayser is excited about the potential of her research to potentially impact a wide range of applications and fields, she is also looking forward to the “great fundamental science” that this CAREER award will enable her group to do.

“It’s a relatively hot area that is going to continue growing, so it’s a good place for us to be leading the pack,” she said. “I’m hoping that by learning more about the fundamentals of these materials, it might inspire others to explore different molecular designs and how they can be translated into devices. Overall, I think we’re going to make lots of really cool discoveries.”

| Photos by Evan Krape |

UD’s LaShanda Korley Appointed U.S. Science Envoy

UD’s LaShanda Korley Appointed U.S. Science Envoy

Esteemed engineer to travel the world to advance science and technology cooperation with U.S.

LaShanda Korley, Distinguished Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Delaware, has been appointed a U.S. Science Envoy for 2023. The announcement was made by the U.S. Department of State on Tuesday, Dec. 6.

Through the Science Envoy Program, eminent U.S. scientists and engineers leverage their expertise and networks to forge connections and identify opportunities for sustained international cooperation, championing innovation and demonstrating America’s scientific leadership and technical ingenuity.

Korley is among seven distinguished scientists who will begin service as U.S. Science Envoys in January 2023. Like their 23 predecessors, these esteemed scientists are approved by the Secretary of State and will engage internationally at the citizen and government levels to enhance relationships between other nations and the United States, develop partnerships and improve collaboration.

According to the U.S. Department of State, Science Envoys leverage their international leadership, influence and expertise in priority countries and regions to advance solutions to shared challenges. They travel as private citizens and help inform the State Department, other U.S. government agencies and the scientific community about opportunities for science and technology cooperation.

Korley is a global leader in applying biologically inspired principles and approaches to the sustainable use of polymer-based materials, including plastics. She is the director of the Center for Plastics Innovation, an Energy Frontier Research Center funded by the U.S. Department of Energy that is working to chemically transform plastic waste — a pollution problem plaguing the world — into fuels, lubricants and other valuable products.

She also leads Bio-Inspired Materials and Systems, a global project funded through the National Science Foundation’s Partnerships for International Research and Education, which aims to develop programmable materials for soft robotic systems, and she is co-director of the UD Center for Hybrid, Active, and Responsive Materials, an NSF Materials Research and Science Center that is driving materials innovation in fields ranging from biomedicine to cybersecurity.

The recipient of numerous awards and honors, Korley is a fellow of the American Physical Society, the American Chemical Society Division of Polymeric Materials: Science and Engineering, and the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering. She received her bachelor’s degrees from Clark Atlanta University and the Georgia Institute of Technology and her doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She completed postdoctoral studies at both MIT and Cornell.

Joining Korley in the 2023 cohort of U.S. Science Envoys are Drew Harvell (Cornell University), Jessica Gephart (American University), Christine Kreuder Johnson (University of California, Davis), Prineha Narang (UCLA), Frances Seymour ( World Resources Institute) and Kyle Whyte (University of Michigan). The State Department announcement has more information about the other envoys.

 Photo illustration by Jeffrey C. Chase  

Four Engineering Professors Honored

Four Engineering Professors Honored

Professors Chen, Day, Pochan and Wang recognized for excellence in medical and biological engineering

Four faculty members from the University of Delaware’s College of Engineering have been recognized by the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE) as members of the organization’s 2022 College of Fellows.

Gore Professor of Chemical Engineering Wilfred Chen, Biomedical Engineering Associate Professor Emily Day, Department of Materials Science and Engineering Chair and Professor Darrin Pochan and Mechanical Engineering Professor Liyun Wang join 149 other fellows recognized this year by the AIMBE for “distinguished and continuing achievements in medical and biological engineering.”

“The election of four College of Engineering faculty members as fellows of the AIMBE speaks to the outstanding talent that can be found right here at the University of Delaware,” said Dean Levi Thompson. “Their work to tackle the grandest challenges we face globally has the full support of their colleagues and this College, and I’m proud to see the wave of new innovations happening in laboratories right here in Delaware.”

Election as an AIMBE Fellow is among the highest recognitions medical and biological engineers can receive, and this cohort of fellows highlights the importance of diversity in disciplines required to advance the future of these research areas. According to an AIMBE press release, only the top 2% of medical and biological engineers are elected to the College of Fellows. Previous Fellows include Nobel prize winners, over 200 members of the National Academy of Engineering and recipients of many other accolades and accomplishments.

The honor recognizes those who have made significant contributions to “engineering and medicine research, practice or education” and to “the pioneering of new and developing fields of technology, making major advancements in traditional fields of medical and biological engineering, or developing/implementing innovative approaches to bioengineering education,” according to the AIMBE.

The 2022 Fellows will be formally recognized at a virtual ceremony on Friday, March 25.

Meet the Fellows

Wilfred Chen, an expert in protein engineering and synthetic biology and professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, joined UD faculty in 2011 after spending 16 years as a professor at the University of California, where he also served as presidential chair of chemical engineering. He has served in editorial roles for multiple journals, and continues to serve as an editor, associate editor or on the editorial board of several publications and has written 250 peer-reviewed studies that have been cited over 20,000 times.

Chen described his work as looking at proteins like individual LEGO blocks and finding ways to put them together. “If I can do it correctly, they can perform the precise functions I want them to do,” he said.

The complex biomolecular engineering Chen undertakes in his lab could have broad implications on a more renewable-based “green economy,” such as finding biological systems to replace petroleum-derived chemicals, as needed to swiftly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to avoid future climate disasters. His work could also improve cancer treatment, but more work needs to be done before a new biological-based option can replace painful chemotherapy treatments.

“This award is an honor, and validates that we have the expertise necessary to pursue a much larger scale of biomedical research in the future,” he said, noting UD’s new Institute for Engineering Driven Health announced in late 2021.

Emily Day, with the Department of Biomedical Engineering, joined UD in 2013 after completing her doctorate in bioengineering at Rice University and a postdoctoral fellowship in chemistry at Northwestern University. Her lab at UD develops innovative nanomaterials that enable high precision therapy of cancer, blood disorders and other diseases while also studying nanoparticle interactions with biological systems from the subcellular-level to a whole-organism perspective. Day also has been recognized with an NSF CAREER Award along with dozens of other awards and grant honors.

The general idea of her work, Day said, is to “make carriers that can get therapeutic cargo where it needs to go in the body in a more precise and more effective way.”

Day said she is honored to be an AIMBE Fellow and excited by the advocacy opportunities the organization provides, as it will enable her to be a voice for science-supported policies promoting biomedical research that can ultimately improve patient care.

“Being a Fellow of AIMBE is not just an honor, but also a responsibility,” Day said. “The election of four UD faculty members this year demonstrates that the type of research being done in our College is top-quality science worthy of national recognition and that our faculty members are true advocates for the advancement of biomedical research.”

Darrin Pochan, who leads the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, joined the UD faculty in 1999 as one of the first members of the then-new Department of Materials Science and Engineering. He has published over 150 peer-reviewed articles with more than 22,000 citations and was named chair in 2014. Among other accolades, he is a Fellow of the American Physical Society, American Chemical Society and the Royal Society of Chemistry in the United Kingdom.

His research team uses tools from biology, such as biomolecules like peptides, to harness their complexities for the creation of future biomedical materials and sustainable materials. His highly collaborative pursuits, which he said rely on close partnerships with computational, chemistry and biology experts, ultimately aim to address the world’s grandest challenges, from having organs available for transplants to biodegradable polymer materials.

“It’s an honor to be recognized by institutions such as the AIMBE that are quite interdisciplinary,” Pochan said. “At UD, we attract world experts in these fields, and fellowships in these societies recognize this leadership. This really highlights the exciting, interdisciplinary nature of the world-class research we do at the University of Delaware.”

Liyun Wang, a biomechanics expert in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, joined the faculty at UD in 2005 following postdoctoral research in orthopedics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. She serves as director for UD’s Center for Biomechanical Engineering Research and co-director of the Multiscale Assessment Research Core in UD’s new Delaware Center for Musculoskeletal Research. She also is a member of several notable professional organizations, including the American Society of Bone and Mineral Research, the Biomedical Engineering Society and the Orthopedic Researchers Society.

Wang’s research has focused on how mechanical forces affect body functions, particularly for patients who may be suffering from other health conditions such as osteoporosis, osteoarthritis or cancer — or the new realm of “mechanobiology,” she explained. Wang said it was the collaborations not only in her lab, but across the College and University that have helped propel her cross-disciplinary work in musculoskeletal research to earn the recognition of groups like the AIMBE.

“Our ultimate goal is to amplify and increase the efficiency and safety of exercise on both healthy people and patient populations,” Wang said. “This honor is a recognition of all the hard work done by my former and current students and postdocs, as well as my collaborators.”

These four fellows join 13 other University of Delaware faculty members (past and current) that have been named AIMBE Fellows. Past honorees include E. Terry Papoutsakis (Class of Fellows 1993), Abraham M. Lenhoff (2003), David C. Martin (2005), Kelvin Lee (2010), Kristi Kiick (2012), Dawn M. Elliott (2013), Randall L. Duncan (2017), Millicent Sullivan (2017), Jill Higginson (2019), LaShanda Korley (2020) and Thomas Epps (2021).

| Photo illustration by Joy Smoker

Focusing on Musculoskeletal Research

Focusing on Musculoskeletal Research

UD wins NIH grant for new center with female professors leading the way

A pulled muscle, an aching joint. Regrettably, it’s an experience we can all relate to — from the youngster with the sprained ankle, to the centenarian with gnarled fingers throbbing from arthritis, to that excruciating moment when you threw your back out doing yard work.

According to the U.S. Bone and Joint Initiative, in 2015 alone, more than half of all Americans reported having a musculoskeletal condition — more than any other medical problem — and the number likely won’t be getting any smaller as the U.S. population ages. The number of Americans age 65 and older is expected to more than double over the next 40 years.

“It’s a really big problem,” said Dawn Elliott, Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Delaware. “Having painful joints doesn’t necessarily kill you, but it can ruin your life.”

Elliott is now leading a major initiative to help tackle the problem. She has won an $11.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to establish the Delaware Center for Musculoskeletal Research — an NIH-designated Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE).

From tendonitis to osteoarthritis, the center will focus on uncovering what happens at the cellular level when injuries and inflammation occur and will test potential therapeutic interventions. This basic science and preclinical research will complement clinical work underway at UD’s top-ranked physical therapy program, the Delaware Rehabilitation Institute and Delaware Center for Translational Research, creating a comprehensive basic-to-clinical research pipeline aimed at powering down these painful disorders.

“We congratulate Professor Dawn Elliott and her team for this groundbreaking initiative to help ease the suffering of millions of people,” said UD President Dennis Assanis. “The work of this new center will drive discoveries and advancements in treating muscle, bone and joint disorders. It will also deliver fundamental research findings to UD’s nationally recognized clinical programs in physical therapy and rehabilitation, thus playing a critical role in enhancing patient care and student education.”

A center with an innovative approach

Your musculoskeletal system is remarkable, encompassing 206 bones to provide support, moveable parts like cartilage that allow joints to slide, and ligaments and tendons that tie together the bones and 600 muscles. All together, these tissues support your weight, maintain your posture and enable you to move about. And when any single part of this dynamic system gets injured or inflamed, it can affect your entire body.

This muscle microtissue, on a 500-micron-tall platform developed by UD Professor Elise Corbin, can be stimulated to contract, providing researchers with new information about muscle force and function.

This muscle microtissue, on a 500-micron-tall platform developed by UD Professor Elise Corbin, can be stimulated to contract, providing researchers with new information about muscle force and function.

According to Elliott, making progress in research requires examining this complex system as an integrated whole and at many different scales, all the way down to the microscopic level.

“The mechanics and biology of the musculoskeletal system are inextricably intertwined and long-ranging, affecting each other across multiple scales,” she said. “Mechanical forces at one site affect all the tissues in the kinetic chain, including physical cues in cells and molecules. Biological signal transmission also is long-ranging — when a ligament is damaged, for example, the inflammatory molecules and metabolites released affect the cartilage and bone locally, as well as the surrounding muscles, and even distant tissues such as the cornea.”

The center’s three major aims will be to accelerate fundamental research by supporting innovative multidisciplinary projects, to establish a Multiscale Assessments Research Core with state-of-the-art tools, and to amplify the impact of musculoskeletal research through faculty mentoring, expansion and retention.

Elise Corbin, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, will lead the center’s first project, on sepsis. This extreme response to an infection triggers a chain reaction in the body, damaging tissue, shutting down organs and, without prompt medical treatment, ending in death.

Survivors of sepsis have an increased risk of developing persistent muscle weakness. Although resistance training is widely accepted for rebuilding muscle mass and strength, recent studies suggest that early physical therapy post-recovery may preserve muscle fiber, but not strength.

Corbin will create an innovative 3D microtissue model from human muscle cells to capture impairments and muscle wasting over time in response to inflammatory agents and determine the recovery of contractile function in response to resistance training.

“Ultimately, we hope to positively impact future treatment and improve the quality of life of post-sepsis survivors,” Corbin said.

A legacy of leadership

Joining Elliott in leading the major components of the center will be Professor Velia Fowler, chair of UD’s Department of Biological Sciences, who will co-direct the center; and Professors Millie Sullivan and Liyun Wang, both from the College of Engineering, who will co-direct the center’s Multiscale Assessments Research Core.

The fact that four women will hold all key leadership roles in the center underscores the legacy of success of a previous COBRE focusing on osteoarthritis, which Thomas Buchanan, George W. Laird Professor of Mechanical Engineering, directed.

“That COBRE had a strong mentoring program to foster the development of women biomedical researchers at UD, and several members of our new center’s team, including myself and Professor Wang, participated in it,” Elliott said. “It’s been inspiring to see the impact it has had on women’s leadership and UD’s research community at large.”

The mechanics and biology of the musculoskeletal system are inextricably intertwined, affecting each other across multiple scales, from the joint to the molecule, as illustrated here. Top, from left to right: MicroCT and histological images of knee joint and femur cartilage. Bottom, from left to right: Fluorescence image of skeletal muscle and electron micrograph of sarcomeres, the fundamental units of a muscle.

The mechanics and biology of the musculoskeletal system are inextricably intertwined, affecting each other across multiple scales, from the joint to the molecule, as illustrated here. Top, from left to right: MicroCT and histological images of knee joint and femur cartilage. Bottom, from left to right: Fluorescence image of skeletal muscle and electron micrograph of sarcomeres, the fundamental units of a muscle.

Since joining the UD faculty in 2019, Fowler has launched a mentoring program for faculty in the Department of Biological Sciences, where several assistant professors recently have won prestigious NIH R01 grants.

“Similarly, at the new center, we have a deep commitment to mentoring and career development to support the transition of junior faculty to extramurally funded research investigators,” Fowler said. “This is absolutely essential in cultivating and retaining new biomedical research leaders. We are fortunate to have the UD ADVANCE Institute at the University, which will serve as a critical collaborator and faculty resource.”

On the technology side, new scientific instruments and techniques, from in vivo micro-computed tomography to photoacoustic imaging systems to customized biomechanical manipulation systems, will allow researchers to investigate the interactions of cells and tissues with their environment. These state-of-the-art tools will be the domain of the Multiscale Assessments Research Core, under the leadership of Sullivan and Wang. The core will be located in newly renovated space on the second floor of the Life Sciences Research Facility.

“This research core will serve not only as an intellectual hub for the DCMR community, but also as a gateway to access other superb partner cores such as UD’s Bio-Imaging Center,” Wang said.

The COBRE funding also will expand and reorganize the staffing model for core resources relevant to the center’s work, including increased support for experimental design and execution.

“The organization of experimental resources and staff under the core umbrella will create a single starting point for our scientists to obtain scientific and technical guidance involving biomechanical, biophysical and bioimaging analysis of musculoskeletal tissues, and it will enable experimental approaches to be refined, validated, codified and shared more broadly,” Sullivan said.

With more than 60 researchers working in musculoskeletal and rehabilitation science across the University, UD is a growing force in the field. The Delaware Center for Musculoskeletal Research will serve as a catalyst for further developing a nationally recognized network of researchers dedicated to improving musculoskeletal health.

“These disorders can have a devastating impact on lives,” Elliott said. “Through our studies, we will be working to understand how tissues function, how they break down with aging and injury, and how they heal. Ultimately, we want people to have the ability to take care of themselves, to live without pain and to enjoy an active lifestyle.”

 Illustration by Jeffrey C. Chase | Video courtesy of Dawn Elliott and Elise Corbin