June 22, 2007

The University of Delaware has been awarded $11 million from the National Institutes of Health for leading-edge, "translational" research on osteoarthritis that includes a unique mentoring program to foster the development of women biomedical researchers at UD.

The grant, led by Thomas Buchanan, professor and chairperson of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, is the second five-year award to UD’s Center for Biomedical Engineering Research from NIH’s Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence Program. The center received a $6.4 million grant in 2002.

The wearing down of cartilage, the natural cushion between the bones and joints, causes osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis. The disease typically affects the knees, hips, back and hands.

According to Buchanan, the latest grant will enable UD to continue building the infrastructure and expertise to address the mechanisms of osteoarthritis, its prevention and treatment by examining the disease from the integrated perspectives of tissue mechanics, biomechanics, physical therapy and clinical intervention.

The program will involve 14 faculty in three of UD’s seven colleges, including the departments of biological sciences and physical therapy in the College of Arts and Sciences, mechanical engineering in the College of Engineering, and health, nutrition and exercise sciences in the College of Health Sciences. Researchers from Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children and the Kessler Medical Rehabilitation Research and Education Corporation will serve as collaborators.

"What we have at UD that’s really unique is a collection of people to address osteoarthritis across multiple levels, which is what translational medicine is all about," Buchanan said.

"We have people who can look at the proteins that are important to the healing of cartilage, for example, to people who can create biomechanical models showing the movement of bones and joints, to people who can conduct the clinical studies critical to the development of therapies. We can span lots of disciplines, which is what’s exciting here," he noted.

Buchanan said the program’s focus on mentoring women in science and engineering evolved after the request for research proposals was circulated at UD. Women faculty submitted the top-five research proposals.

"We wanted to find ways to use this program as an opportunity to promote their role," he noted.

Nationally, women continue to be underrepresented in the academic ranks of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. At UD, the percentages of all tenured/tenure-track women faculty are 17 percent in the natural sciences and 10 percent in engineering, according to Buchanan.

"Mechanical engineering, for example, traditionally has been a male discipline although many of our new faculty are women," Buchanan said of the UD department he chairs. "Our goal is to find good faculty mentors and start working with these new hires to see the discipline change. We need better mentoring to help with the process."

The grant’s chief components, Buchanan said, are to create a core facility for mentoring women in science and engineering, to establish a new lab focusing on cytomechanics, or cell mechanics, and to advance five integrated research projects in osteoarthritis.

L. Pamela Cook, professor of mathematical sciences, associate dean of engineering and chairperson of UD’s Commission on the Status of Women, is assisting with the development of a strong internal networking and support system for women faculty in science and engineering. Professional development workshops, establishment of a faculty ombudswoman and University-wide presentations on gender issues, including promotion and tenure, are being planned.

Women faculty are directing the grant’s five research projects. Two are led by senior faculty, who also are helping to mentor the junior faculty in charge of the remaining projects.

Mary C. Farach-Carson, professor of biological sciences and director of UD’s Center for Translational Cancer Research, and Catherine Kirn-Safran, research assistant professor of biological sciences, are leading a team to define the structural and functional roles of the biomolecule perlecan in cartilage biology. The biomolecule’s heparan sulfate chains are believed to be critical to the maintenance of cartilage in adults and the regrowth of damaged cartilage.

Liyun Wang, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, is exploring the pathway of communication between bone and cartilage. Experiments have shown that bone cells from osteoarthritic patients can cause cartilage to break down. Wang is combining lab techniques with mathematical modeling to characterize the movement of molecules through bones in normal and osteoarthritic joints.

Lynn Snyder-Mackler, Alumni Distinguished Professor of Physical Therapy and director of the Graduate Program in Biomechanics and Movement Sciences at UD, is leading a research team to determine if rehabilitation that normalizes quadriceps strength between the limbs after total knee replacement—one of the most common surgeries in the U.S.—will ultimately decrease the progression of osteoarthritis of the hip and knee.

Jill Higginson, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, is investigating the muscle forces and coordination strategies used during walking in individuals with age-related osteoarthritis of the knee. A combination of MRI, gait analysis, electromyography and biomechanical modeling and simulation will be employed to determine the most effective nonsurgical interventions.

Katherine Rudolph, assistant professor of physical therapy, is working to understand how quadriceps strength, knee stiffness, proprioception and instability contribute to osteoarthritis of the knee. The study will help researchers understand the strategies that can be used to improve knee function without further joint damage and aid in developing screening tools to identify patients who will benefit from rehabilitation programs.

Source: MedicalNewsToday