RESEARCH SPOTLIGHT

CBIS investigation challenges the norm

Dr. Deepak Vashishth, director of the Center of Interdisciplinary Studies and professor of biomedical engineering at RPI, is recognized for his insightful and influential research concerning the bone matrix. With a plethora of topics to explore, including global health, environmental degradation, and the influence of drugs, Vashishth’s research group applies engineering concepts to biomedical problems and considers the impact on patients—all of which surround the idea of “benchside to bedside.”

Vashishth has had success in understanding the influencing factors of bone fracture. It was found that the collagen network is, in simple terms, affected by nonenzymatic glycation (covalently bonded sugar molecules). In other terms, cross-linked collagen results from increased levels of sugar, which inhibits cells from digesting cross-linked amino acids in matrix proteins and repairing defects in bones. Thus, the group investigated diabetics and wondered if their bones are more likely to fracture. Two of many approaches taken are further explored.

One approach included a clinic with diabetic patient data, which rejected the correlation between increased sugar affecting bone fracture as a result of bone density measurements. In clinics, higher bone density measurements with x-rays indicate a decreased risk of fracture, and it was found that diabetics had higher than normal bone densities. Thus, the correlation was rejected and the group began investigating blood based measures to predict fracture risk. In a second approach, the group developed an in vitro method to make bones diabetic on a lab bench and investigated why the presence of sugar in bone from diabetes makes bones brittle. Similar to diabetes, they also found that, with age, there is an increased presence of cross-linked sugar, indicating that with age comes an increased risk of bone fracture. Thus, research on diabetes in bone could also be of value to large cohorts of the elderly population. Ultimately, the study concluded that there is, in fact, a relationship between sugar and risk of bone fracture. The findings have resulted in a reevaluation of clinical diagnosis for situations beyond diabetes.

The above findings have further led to the development of novel therapeutic approaches to “take the effects of diabetes out of bone” and allow cells to again digest the proteins that are involved with bone repair. “This opens up a whole new field,” said Vashishth, excited to enter a new market and bring his research to bedside. Now, the group is working to improve clinical diagnosis of bone fracture risk by developing a blood based test using data mining, as well as working to understand how the bone matrix naturally comes together and use biomimicry to regenerate a new matrix.

Vashishth highlights the importance of both graduate and undergraduate students in his group. They develop methods to test an idea and further evaluate these methods to narrow down a specific and promising course of action. The students in Vashishth’s group provide a new perspective to his projects, and he says, “I have students from different departments working in my lab.” This diversity is what allows Vashishth’s research to cross fields like materials science, biology, mechanical engineering, pharmaceuticals, physics, chemistry, computer science, and of course, biotechnology.

CBIS is known for encouraging interdisciplinary education and research in its undergraduate research program. As director, Vashishth started an initiative to pair students with faculty not in their major. As a result, 20 to 25 students affiliated with CBIS participate in this opportunity each semester. This has allowed both research groups and students to gain new perspectives and further advance their knowledge. Vashishth encourages students to become involved with research, especially interdisciplinary research, as it is invaluable to determining the unknown.