Breaking the Brain Barrier
Since the wars began in Iraq and Afghanistan, the news has been filled with stories about soldiers suffering traumatic brain injuries, which often are caused by improvised explosive devices. The Department of Defense last year estimated 50,000 cases, the Pentagon estimated 115,000 and the RAND Corp. reported that the count could be as high as 400,000.
Christopher Donald Hue (Macaulay Honors College at City College, BE in biomedical engineering, 2008) is conducting research that may lead to a fuller understanding of how explosions damage the brain, ways that injuries can be better treated and the possibility of developing novel helmets or other protective equipment to safeguard troops.
In the second year of a biomedical engineering doctoral program at Columbia University's School of Engineering and Applied Science, Hue has received a 2012 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. This is the most prestigious award a graduate student in the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) can receive. Providing $126,000 over three years, it recognizes and supports exceptional students who have proposed graduate-level research projects in their fields.
Hue works in the Neurotrauma and Repair Laboratory directed by Associate Professor Barclay Morrison III, who researches the biomechanics of traumatic brain injury and studies why these injuries kill brain cells. Hue's doctoral project looks at a segment of the problem - damage to the blood-brain barrier (BBB), the selectively permeable barrier in cerebral microvessels that protects and maintains the brain's microenvironment.
The BBB is a complex interface between the peripheral circulation and the central nervous system. This tightly regulated structure S-shields the brain from macromolecules and neurotoxic substances circulating in the blood, while allowing in specific nutrients and metabolites required by nervous tissue. It is due in large part to this specialized function that the BBB also presents a formidable obstacle to available treatment options for neurological diseases, inspiring the search for better methods to deliver material across this biological barrier to target cellular populations in the brain.
In the laboratory, Hue cultures brain endothelial cells to represent an in vitro model of the BBB and then exposes the model to "a controlled primary blast injury mimicking what soldiers sustain in the field. In doing so, I'm able to study how this exposure to blast will impact the barrier's structure and function."
This research in blast-induced traumatic brain injury conducted at Columbia is part of a larger collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania and Duke University. The Army Research Office supports it via its Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative.
As part of another project in collaboration with chemical engineering Associate Professor Scott A. Banta, Hue is screening a randomized library of peptides using an in vitro model of the BBB to discover novel, cell-penetrating peptides that can cross the barrier. Ultimately, he hopes to find promising candidates that will be able to penetrate the BBB and deliver drugs to the brain to repair damage from a traumatic injury. "That's my long-term goal, and this is the starting point," he says.
"The NSF grant will help me delve more deeply into developing more complex models of the BBB," he says. "I'm now using a mouse brain microvascular cell line, but it would be more realistic to culture cells directly from animals, as well as to incorporate multiple cell types to better represent the complexity of the barrier. That would be my goal moving forward. The NSF grant gives me the independence to do that."
Hue, who was born and raised in Queens, was attracted to City College's Grove School of Engineering because "it was academically rigorous and prepared me for the environment here" at Columbia. "I felt very prepared to tackle grad school. I've even gone back to City College as a representative of [Columbia's] Graduate Biomedical Engineering Society to promote the grad school and our program."
He also was drawn to Macaulay Honors College, whose advisors "always pushed me and encouraged me to look for national fellowships and to be proactive. Being a Macaulay Honors student put me in a position to have access to a strong academic support network and to promising opportunities for pursuing my educational and professional goals."
At City College, Hue received the Josh and Judy Weston Public Service Scholarship, the Merck Engineering & Technology Fellowship and the Horace W. Goldsmith Scholarship. He also is a member of Tau Beta Pi, the national engineering honor society.