UCF researchers engineer mosquito-friendly tissue to study diseases

A research team from the University of Central Florida (UCF) has successfully engineered tissue using human cells that attract mosquitoes for feeding, aiming to combat deadly diseases transmitted by these insects. The team, led by biomedical researcher Bradley Jay Willenberg from the College of Medicine, along with Mollie Jewett from UCF Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences and Andrew Dickerson from the University of Tennessee, created 3D capillary gel biomaterials lined with human cells and infused them with blood. Testing revealed that mosquitoes readily bit and fed on the engineered tissue. This breakthrough offers a new platform for studying how mosquito-borne pathogens affect human cells and tissues, replacing the current reliance on animal models and cells cultured on flat dishes.

Additionally, this system shows promise for studying blood-feeding mosquito species that are challenging to rear and maintain in laboratory colonies, which has practical applications. The research team’s work was published in the journal Insects.

Mosquitoes are commonly referred to as the world’s deadliest animals because they transmit vector-borne diseases, causing over 700,000 deaths worldwide each year. Diseases such as malaria, dengue fever, Zika virus, and West Nile virus are all transmitted by mosquitoes. Survivors of these illnesses often suffer from organ failure, seizures, and severe neurological effects.

Willenberg explains that the significant global impact of mosquito-borne diseases motivates his research. His lab combines biomedical engineering, biomaterials, tissue engineering, nanotechnology, and vector biology to develop innovative tools for mosquito surveillance, control, and research. He also hopes to adapt this new platform for studying other disease-carrying vectors like ticks, which transmit Lyme disease.

Credit: University of Central Florida

“We have successfully demonstrated the initial proof-of-concept with our prototype,” Willenberg explains. “I believe there are numerous potential applications for this technology.”

In a captivating video, Willenberg observed mosquitoes eagerly feeding on the engineered tissue, mimicking their behavior when feeding on a human host. This milestone represents a crucial achievement for the technology, ensuring that the tissue constructs are enticing to mosquitoes.

“One of my mentors once told me that the ultimate goal of physicians and biomedical researchers is to alleviate human suffering,” Willenberg reflects. “If we can provide something that helps us understand mosquitoes, tackle diseases, and somehow keep mosquitoes away from people, I consider that a positive outcome.”

The idea for engineered tissue came to Willenberg when he learned that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) was seeking new 3D in vitro models to study pathogens carried by mosquitoes and other biting arthropods.

“When I read about the NIH’s search for such models, it sparked the idea of getting mosquitoes to directly bite and feed on the 3D models,” Willenberg recalls. “This way, I could bring the mosquito into the equation and create a comprehensive model of the vector-host-pathogen interface to study them together.”

As the platform is still in its early stages, Willenberg plans to incorporate various types of cells to make the system more closely resemble human skin. He is also establishing collaborations with experts who study pathogens and work with infected vectors. Additionally, he is partnering with mosquito control organizations to explore how they can leverage this technology.

“I have a specific vision for this platform, and I’m actively pursuing it. However, I believe that when good ideas and research directions are shared with others, they flourish,” Willenberg expresses. “Ultimately, the collective ideas and efforts of various research communities will propel our system to its full potential. So, if we can provide tools that empower their work while advancing our own, it’s truly exciting.”

Source: University of Central Florida

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