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Biomedical engineering professor receives NSF funding

— NSF I-Corps program to help team commercialize artificial cell manufacturing for education —

National Science Foundation (NSF) funding to develop and commercialize artificially-manufactured cells and cell platforms for educational, research and industry application has been awarded to a team of scientists led by Dr. Mark DeCoster, the James E. Wyche III Professor in Biomedical Engineering at Louisiana Tech University.

DeCoster, along with Kahla St. Marthe, a Ph.D. student in biomedical engineering at Louisiana Tech, and Mr. Shafin Khan, director of technology commercialization at the New Orleans Bioinnovation Center, received Innovation-Corps program funds to develop and commercialize their artificial cell technology, which will be paired with educational and visualization software to provide hands-on experiments and testing resources for students and assisted by the software learning tools.

Dr. Mark DeCoster

Dr. Mark DeCoster

“My research group is a cellular neuroscience lab and we had been studying different processes of how brain cells communicate with each other,” said DeCoster. “There are different types of cells and they work at different speeds, and we can see changes happening under the microscope. We can also model these changes using computer software, and therefore change the balance of different types of cells and study how the brain cell networks change with time.

“It occurred to me that we could develop ‘artificial cells’ that could reflect how cells change with time and if we could make these of interest to researchers and to teachers, we could make products that could benefit students as well as basic and applied research such as at universities and in industry.”

DeCoster said his team had already been using 3D printers to make 3D objects in his lab and it occurred to him that artificial cells could also be made at least in part by 3D printing, which became the motivation and the catalyst for the NSF funding. Plastics will be the initial base materials since they can be produced with a 3D printer, but other materials will be incorporated into the platforms such as dyes and chemicals that will define the dynamic processes. The artificial cell kits will also include instructional and experimental software based on “predator-prey” and other dynamic processes that will guide experimentation and testing.

The development of learning tools for K-12 students in science labs will be the team’s first target, starting with outreach to local schools in north Louisiana and in the New Orleans area. As part of commercializing these products, DeCoster is focused on developing a new startup company and website, which will help expand the impact of technology.

“Our hope is that the end users will benefit from studying and testing how cells and their environments change by using our artificial cells and associated software to see these processes,” DeCoster said. “We will initially make these artificial cells big enough so that they can be hand-held for school children and the software we are using is freely available on the web to help illustrate and visualize the ideas. We plan to target K-12 science classrooms first, but also anticipate in the future more advanced devices that can be used with instruments such as microscopy.”

DeCoster says the importance of commercializing technologies such as this is twofold. First, it’s to be successful and to generate income and jobs in the region and beyond. Second is to successfully commercialize these technologies so that they can become an engine to further drive the basic research on cells to benefit health and medicine in areas such as tissue engineering and drug delivery.

“Louisiana Tech University has been a great environment for our team to be successful in this new funded project,” explains DeCoster. “We have excellent students, at the undergraduate and graduate levels, who have opportunities to hear about and learn the commercialization process in the classrooms and in the labs. Additionally, a number of startup companies have been formed out of this environment at Louisiana Tech allowing us to grow and compete in the marketplace.

“I think that all of these components of Louisiana Tech can assist researchers and innovators in driving our ideas and discoveries through to commercialization.”