A research team from the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science has developed an innovative tool using a new method to grow blood vessels from living lung tissue in the lab. This breakthrough holds promise for finding a cure for idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF), a debilitating lung disease.
Fibrosis, the chronic scarring of tissue, affects various body systems and is linked to 45% of deaths in the United States, as per the National Institutes of Health. In the case of lung fibrosis, it severely impairs breathing. Understanding the mechanisms behind scarring and finding ways to prevent it is crucial, especially for IPF, which has an unknown cause.
Assistant professor Lakeshia J. Taite, along with Shayn M. Peirce-Cottler and Ph.D. student Julie Leonard-Duke in Peirce-Cottler’s lab, is spearheading this research. Their approach combines computational models of blood vessel behavior in fibrotic lungs with experiments using hydrogels developed in Taite’s lab. This novel platform aims to study the formation of blood vessels, known as angiogenesis.
Taite and Peirce-Cottler are investigating how angiogenesis, a natural part of tissue repair after injury, contributes to lung fibrosis, causing flexible tissue to become stiff and fibrous, ultimately leading to loss of function.
Their findings, published in Microcirculation, include an image featuring vascular sprouting from mouse lung tissue on a hydrogel—a biomaterial resembling a soft contact lens. Taite’s team modifies these hydrogels with bioactive molecules to mimic signals that promote blood vessel development.
To achieve this, they chemically combine peptides (amino acid strings) with polyethylene glycol derivatives, resulting in a substance similar to store-bought gelatin mix. When exposed to ultraviolet light in a water-based solution, these molecules crosslink to create a material that supports new cell growth when mouse lung cells are placed on its surface.
Taite explains, “The hydrogel was tailored to have mechanical properties matching healthy lung tissue, serving as the vascular cells’ native extracellular matrix.”
The overarching goal of this project is to understand the mechanical and biochemical cues influencing blood vessels in the lungs during fibrosis development. The team is creating laboratory models to accelerate the search for IPF treatments.
Taite initiated this research in 2021, combining her experimental techniques with Leonard-Duke’s computer models. These models, informed by the sprouting assay data, simulate the complex cell behaviors contributing to lung fibrosis. Artificial intelligence and machine learning are then employed to explore potential drug targets.
Other contributors to this research include Anthony C. Bruce, Samuel Agro, and Yixuan Yuan, all actively involved in advancing the project.
In summary, this innovative research project holds promise for unraveling the mysteries of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis and potentially discovering new treatments to combat this devastating lung condition.
Source: University of Virginia