Rowan engineering clinics have pain sufferers' backs

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Rowan University assistant professor of chemical engineering Dr. Jennifer Vernengo and her students are hoping to ease the pain of the thousands of Americans who suffer from spinal cord injuries and lower back pain each year.

Rowan University assistant professor of chemical engineering Dr. Jennifer Vernengo and her students are hoping to ease the pain of the thousands of Americans who suffer from spinal cord injuries and lower back pain each year.

Vernengo and students in her engineering clinics are working on a specially formulated hydrogel, which is liquid at room temperature and turns into a solid at body temperature.

Their belief? When injected into the body, the gel will replace broken-down body tissue at an injury site. After injection through a needle, the gel releases growth factors—substances to foster tissue regeneration.

The innovative procedure is distinctive in that it is non-invasive. The body does not have to be cut open, thus minimizing the risk associated with medical operations. In cases of a lower back pain, for example, the hydrogel is injected to fill the space of damaged squishy tissue intended to protect two bones of the spine from rubbing against each other.

Two undergraduate clinics and one graduate team at Rowan are dedicated to the project.  
 
In the first clinic, chemical engineering students Thomas Cosentino (Brookside) and Elizabeth Jamison (Clermont) and mechanical engineering students Allison Daniello (Manalapan) and Mary Wellspeak (Annapolis, Md.), assisted by Rowan mechanical engineering Professor Dr. Jennifer Kadlowec and Biological Sciences Professor Dr. Cristina Iftode, are formulating the hydrogel for those experiencing lower back pain. The researchers anticipate using the gel to heal intervertebral degenerated discs in the lower back.

In the second clinic, three Rowan undergraduate students, Carl Beigie (Cherry Hill), Danielle Lussier (Manalapan) and Tatsiana Sokal (Voorhees), assisted by Rowan biochemistry Professor Dr. Greg Caputo, are measuring how quickly proteins are released from the hydrogel. The students aim to maximize the gel’s effectiveness by speeding up or slowing down the rate of growth factors leaving the gel.  In this project, the hope is to use the gel to deliver growth factors to help in spinal cord healing.

Additionally, a Rowan master’s student, Pamela Kubinski (Jackson), and a Drexel Ph.D. student, Lauren Conova (Pitman), are studying cell behavior for a third collaborative project — evaluating if the gel is compatible with cells and if the cells can live inside the gel.

All three bioengineering clinics use the gel to deliver therapeutic growth factors to achieve their objectives.

“Bioengineering is a very important part of chemical engineering. Rowan gives graduate students this research, and I’m happy to be able to work with undergraduates in this capacity as well,” said Vernengo. “It’s what sets Rowan apart.”

The clinic projects on spinal cord healing are a continuation of the post-doctoral research Vernengo began last June with colleagues Anthony Lowman of Drexel University’s Department of Chemical Engineering and Itzhak Fischer and Birgit Neuhuber of Drexel University’s College of Medicine.

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