Rowan engineering prof researches Fetal Alcohol Syndrome with 'collaborators'
Dr. Mary Staehle stashes the collaborators on her latest research project in Tupperware-like storage containers.
No worries, though. She feeds them regularly – every Tuesday, they eat their special diet of beef liver paste. It may not sound appetizing, but they’re not complaining. After all, with their water, a steady food supply and the roof of the South Jersey Technology Park over their heads, what more could a flatworm ask for?
Staehle, a Rowan University assistant professor of chemical engineering, has been working with these partners, called planaria but better known as flatworms, since last fall. Staehle, whose background is in not only chemical engineering but also biomedical engineering, oversees an undergraduate clinic team that is working to gain insight into Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) by exposing the worms to alcohol.
Her goal is to find out what level of alcohol leads to developmental problems in the flatworms. The hope, Staehle said, is to establish planaria as a model system for studying developmental problems caused by alcohol in humans.
Planaria are famous for their regenerative capabilities. This regeneration, which in this project simulates the process of human development, makes the worms useful for this study. Planaria also are ideal specimens for this project because they have a nervous system — the part of the body that, in humans, is affected by FAS.
Staehle and her students currently are working with a species of planaria that is readily available, but she eventually hopes to work with a different species of flatworms, one that has been researched more widely. The genome has been sequenced for the second type, meaning the organism’s DNA sequence has been studied and recorded. Using this type of planaria would allow Staehle to look at alcohol’s effects on a particular gene. A new microscope that the team has just received, one with grids on the lens, also should help the researchers make progress. “It’s not overly fancy,” Staehle said, “but it will allow us to make quantitative measurements.”
First, Staehle and her students must discover what level of alcohol exposure affects the planaria. Once they reach that milestone, they can begin approaching a more long-term goal: to study molecular regeneration, the process of regrowth or development, in the worms. The question then becomes “How well and how fast do the planaria regrow?”
In other studies by other researchers, planaria have been used to explore the effects of cocaine and cannabinoids, drugs in the marijuana family, and the effects of drug withdrawal. Staehle does know of one other study, conducted in the 1940s, that found that planaria exposed to alcohol began to exhibit differences in head shape — one of the symptoms of FAS in humans. However, the study was never pursued further, Staehle said, “so we’re doing it now.”
Staehle’s project could have far-reaching practical applications. “We want to look at molecular differences between a worm that has been exposed to alcohol and one that hasn’t,” Staehle said. “It won’t cure Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, but it will help us better understand it.” And that, the professor added, is one big step toward treating FAS.
“There are a lot of things in biology and medicine that we don’t understand,” Staehle said, noting that biomedical engineers may have an advantage in this field because they “look at dynamic processes, processes that change over time, in different ways than biologists can.”