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Dr. Rosalyn Abbott, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, provides an insightful overview of her research into cell and tissue engineering and the potential for diagnostic and therapeutic breakthroughs.

As a Ph.D. in bioengineering, Dr. Abbott has a keen interest in cell and tissue engineering, biomaterials, adipose microenvironments, disease modeling, and tissue regeneration. In her Carnegie Mellon lab, human adipose microenvironments are developed and tested for responsiveness to stimuli hypothesized to alter disease mechanisms, for example, the transition of obese tissues to insulin-resistant type II diabetic tissues; metabolic behavior; and therapeutic potential. Dr. Abbott and her skilled team of researchers focus on integrating biomaterials with tissue engineering techniques and perfusion bioreactors. Interestingly, silk is used as an organic biomaterial to aid long-term culture of adipose microenvironments in vitro. The team’s long-term goal is to use these selected adipose tissue systems to inform preventative as well as therapeutic measures for patients who are affected by the metabolic syndrome. Dr. Abbott’s lab is particularly interested in the utilization of tissue engineering to study metabolic dysregulation during the complicated transition of obesity into insulin-resistant type II diabetes.

In addition to running her lab and being an assistant professor in biomedical engineering with an additional appointment in materials science and engineering, Dr. Abbott has been an active member of many important research and academic environments. She received her BS and MS degrees in biomedical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. And her Ph.D. in bioengineering was achieved at the University of Vermont. Additionally, she was a postdoctoral fellow in the biomedical engineering department at Tufts University, where she gained recognition for her work in the development of adipose tissue engineered models.

Dr. Abbott discusses her lab’s history, and work—engineering fat. She talks about the major challenge of designing drug therapeutics, which is the fact that our basic understanding of human disease mechanisms is based on animal models or simplified cell culture models. She informs us that fat, or adipose tissue, has long been thought of as a passive organ with the sole purposes of storing energy or insulating the body, but recent research has discovered that fat plays a more dynamic role in the body in regard to disease. Specifically, fat communicates with other tissues, and obesity is a chronic state of inflammation that causes stress on the rest of the body.

The bioengineering PhD talks about chemicals that affect the body, such as those we ingest from packaging, etc. She discusses the impact of bisphenol S, commonly known as BPS, that we take into the body when using containers for drinks and food made from some plastics. She recounts some experimental evidence that was revealed by testing exposure to certain chemicals, and how it related to accumulation of additional adipose tissue.

Dr. Abbott discusses the process of lipolysis, and specific proteins. Lipolysis is the breakdown of lipids and it involves the hydrolysis of triglycerides into glycerol and free fatty acids. The process occurs in adipose tissue and lipolysis is the means to mobilize stored energy during periods of fasting or exercise. She states that adipocytes (cells that are specialized for the storage of fat that are found in connective tissue) can last for up to ten years in the body, so the rate of turnover is dramatically slow indeed. She explains how adipocytes communicate with each other, and gives an overview of some of the other cells in the system. She discusses adipose-derived stem cells that are often located near the stromal vascular fraction, a heterogeneous collection of cells that are contained within adipose tissue.

The PhD talks about the work her lab engages in to understand the transition of obesity into insulin resistant type II diabetes. They seek to understand how this expansion in adipose tissue relates to larger systemic changes within the body, and how it all affects other diseases. Their question is what is being communicated that is causing all these detrimental problems within the body, and Dr. Abbott hopes to find more answers that will lead to solutions and treatments by understanding fully the pathways to certain diseases. Additionally, she is hopeful that their research will also lead to better drugs for treatment. As their mission states, there is a crucial need for monitoring physiologically relevant, sustainable, human tissues in vitro in order to better understand the development and causes of metabolic diseases.

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