NEWARK— In Alice Lee’s third floor campus laboratory sits a row of petri dishes inside a heated incubator.
The New Jersey Institute of Technology Assistant Professor is growing colonies of chamber-shaped cardiac cells and then triggering a “heart attack” within the microscopic organisms with one goal in mind: to learn exactly how the heart repairs itself following damage.
The tissue is derived from stem cells and stored at exactly 37 degrees Celsius– the human body temperature. The cells serve as a testing site for drugs and treatments that cannot normally be used on patients, Lee said.
“For us to better understand what is happening after a heart attack inside the body… we have to understand the cells or the mechanisms better,” Lee said.
Lee, who recently received a five-year faculty award from the National Science Foundation, began working on cardiovascular tissue engineering as a graduate student at Colombia University 10 years ago. There, she said she developed the world’s first cardiac tissue chamber.
“The heart is one of the most important, yet complicated, organs in the body,” she said. “If you ask people in an audience ‘How many of you have a family member or friend with heart problems?’, more than half raise their hands.”
Lee considers the work she is doing at NJIT, along with Ph.D. student Pamela Hitscherich, to be a unique approach to a common problem.
Biomedical engineers have mainly been looking at cell-based therapy, which involves shooting different stem cells types into the body in hopes they help regenerate tissue. The method, she said, has been largely unsuccessful because a majority of the cells die upon injection or stray from the damaged area.
But by studying the damaged heart’s condition on a microscopic level, Lee aims to discover why the cells fail to survive in the body and how they can better stick to the heart.
“If we can provide some extra help for these cells to initially stick better or to survive…