Wendy Liu Receives NIH Director’s New Innovator Award

BME faculty member wins one of 51 awards nationally

Sept. 13, 2012 - Assistant Professor Wendy Liu, Ph.D., The Edwards Lifesciences Center for Advanced Cardiovascular Technology in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, has been awarded a 2012 National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director’s New Innovator Award for her proposal entitled “Engineering Biomaterials to Exert Molecular Control of Immune Cell Function.”

Type I diabetes is caused by autoimmune attacks on insulin producing beta-cells within pancreatic islets, and affects nearly three million patients in the United States. Currently, the most common treatment of the disease requires continuous blood glucose monitoring followed by insulin injections, which are invasive and require constant patient vigilance. Alternatively, organ or cell transplantations do not require these steps, and have been shown to maintain physiologic blood glucose levels, but availability of donor tissue is a major challenge. Transplantation of encapsulated xenograft islets is another promising approach, but due to the failure of the encapsulating biomaterial to remain free of fibrosis over long periods of time it has had limited success.

The objective of Liu’s work in The Henry Samueli School of Engineering is to develop biomaterials that inhibit local immune cells, in order to prevent the inflammatory and ensuing fibrotic response to implanted materials, where an inflammatory response is undesirable (including not only materials for cell encapsulation, but also cardiovascular devices, surgical devices, tissue engineered constructs, biosensors). Liu seeks to lessen the immune response by using a new approach to biomaterial design, where materials are decorated with immunomodulatory molecules, which are biomimetic and naturally expressed by host tissue, and actively deliver signals to local immune cells that make the materials more tolerable to the cells. These molecules are the body's natural way of regulating immune tolerance to host tissue as well as the healing response to wounds. It is believed that they are a better approach when compared to harsh immunosuppressive therapies.  

“The immune response to biomaterials is critical for the success of so many different medical devices.  Our strategy harnesses the body’s own potential to control inflammation and promote healing, which will hopefully prevent device failure and ultimately help cure life-threatening diseases,” says Liu. “The approach has a long way to go before reaching the clinic, so I am extremely happy to receive this award so that we can pursue our research aggressively.” 

Liu received a B.S. degree in materials science and engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a Ph.D. degree from Johns Hopkins University in biomedical engineering.

The New Innovator Award initiative, established in 2007, supports investigators who are within 10 years of their terminal degree or clinical residency, but who have not yet received a Research Project Grant or equivalent NIH grant, to conduct exceptionally innovative research.

The NIH is the nation's medical research agency and includes 27 institutes and centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit http://www.nih.gov.