Written by Cameron Walker
Photo: TECS Associate Professor Jessica Gluck working in her laboratory
What if you could create a new heart from a patient’s own cells, eliminating problems such as long waits for organ donors and the possibility of organ rejection? New Textile Engineering, Chemistry and Science (TECS) assistant professor Jessica Gluck believes it’s possible, and her cutting-edge research brings us ever-closer to the prospect.
Gluck’s research takes place at the cellular level — specifically, stem cells. Most cells in the body have a specific function; stem cells are cells that have not yet been assigned a purpose, and therefore can become almost any cell the body needs.
“I’m really interested in tissue engineering; we want to recreate something that you would [normally] find in the body, but in the lab,” she said. “We want to try to figure out how [stem cells] become a tissue of interest, because if we know how they become, how they develop, we can figure out when a disease or a disorder will happen. We can come up with either a way to completely prevent it from happening or a new treatment strategy. On the flip side, if we can recreate that tissue from stem cells, [take it] through development and get to the point where it’s functioning, we could potentially replace that diseased tissue as a way to negate organ donation.”
The stem cells she uses in her research are called induced pluripotent stem cells, which are skin cells that have been stripped of their purpose and returned to what is basically their embryonic state. A scientist named Shinya Yamanaka won the Nobel Peace Prize for this research in 2012, toward the end of Gluck’s doctoral studies, opening up a new frontier in biological research.
“An induced pluripotent stem cell has all of the same properties of an embryonic stem cell, but it could potentially become patient-specific,” she said. “If you had a problem, we could take your cells and reprogram them — essentially tricking them into thinking that they’re back in that embryonic state — and then put them back into you. So they would be specific to you. Then the tissue that you would eventually be regenerating could be specifically tailored to you.”
So where do the textiles come in?
“Think of it like getting eggs from chickens,” she said. “It’s not like you’re just carrying all the eggs back [in your hands]; you need something to put them in. We need some sort of scaffold material to put this tissue on so that we could then [insert it] surgically right where we need it. So we are working with nanofibrous scaffolds; we can alter their properties mechanically and physically, so we can add proteins that you would find in the body that would be specific to that area.”
For example, the area that would most frequently need to be replaced in a heart is the pacemaker — the conductor of the heart’s rhythm section.
“The way we know we’re successful in getting from a stem cell to a heart cell is that we can see them beating,” she said. “We need to be able to see them, the individual cells, beat. The heart beating is the cells beating. In your heart, you probably have about a billion cells. There’s this tiny pocket called the pacemaker, and it’s only about 100,000 to 250,000 cells that are actually the pacemaker cells…We found that that area of the heart has slightly different mechanical properties than the rest of the heart; it has different proteins present. If we can get a scaffold that is exactly the same as what you find in the heart, and we put stem cells on it, will we get a pacemaker?”
To conduct her research, she needed a way to view the cells even when they are aligned on a structure.
“We need to be able to see the cells, and if we put a scaffold or some sort of fibrous material there, that will block the light, so you can’t see the cells,” she said. “The only way that you can look at them is if they have a fluorescent marker, because you’ll be able to see the fluorescent marker through the scaffold. It’s not thin enough where the light can pass through it, but it’s thin enough where you’ll be able to get that fluorescent signal — that’s the only way that we can see how happy our cells are.”
This required a specialized piece of equipment known as a fluorescent microscope, which can cost anywhere from $20,000 to upwards of a million dollars. She applied for — and won — a grant through the Laboratory Research Equipment Program (LREP) to help fund the microscope. She is currently researching equipment options and hopes to make the purchase soon. The microscope will be available to other researchers at the university, opening up new possibilities for cellular research at NC State.
Gluck is not only the new TECS professor; she’s also an alumna. She graduated with a B.S. in Textile Technology (TT) in 2005 and an M.S. with a concentration in Biomedical Textiles in 2007 from the Wilson College of Textiles. During her time at NC State, she conducted graduate research under TECS professor Martin King, gaining experience in the design, fabrication and characterization of fibrous biomaterials.
She moved to the West Coast to continue her studies, earning a second M.S. in Biomedical Engineering in 2008 and a Ph.D. in Molecular, Cellular and Integrative Physiology in 2013 from the University of California, Los Angeles. She completed postdoctoral research in stem cell biology and cardiology at the University of California, Davis in 2016.
Gluck returned to the East Coast, working in science education and communication at a grant-funded, short-term position at the science museum Discovery Place. She then took a position as a research scientist at start-up biotech company Precise Bio, where she worked on a project to develop a bioprinted cornea to be used for specific optical disorders. The company is on track to conduct human clinical trials by the end of next year.
She joined the Wilson College of Textiles in August 2019 and is currently hard at work conducting research. She will begin teaching in the Fall of 2020.
Gluck now shares lab space with her former professor and mentor King.
“He’s been absolutely phenomenal,” she said. “The class I will be teaching is one that he developed; I sat in on his class all semester and I’m sitting in on one of his classes this semester. He has introduced me to people in industry and has plans to introduce me to other colleagues on campus. He’s been great at opening the doors. It’s just really weird now to try to remember to call him Martin.”
What keeps her interested in this topic after nearly two decades of study and research? For Gluck, her curiosity was piqued during a class she took on veterinary medicine during graduate school. The class was challenging, but she realized that most of the information they were learning was from the early 1900s.
“You would think that we would know a lot more than we actually do,” she said. “So it’s a little scary to think there’s so much about the body that we still don’t know — but I think that also makes it really exciting.” She estimates we only really know about 50% of how the human body functions.
Gluck says the future of biomedical textiles is wide open.
“You have this field of tissue engineering which is right on the cusp,” she said. “It feels like we’re just missing one small step and once everybody gets over that hump, the floodgates will open and there will just be an amazing flooding of the market…[For example], how do you get your tissue vascularized — how do you get blood vessels? How can you create them in the lab the same way your body does? No one has an answer to these questions…[Perhaps] they could print a 3D structure so that you have the blood vessels?”
With her experience, education and drive, she may just be the person to answer these questions.
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