P&S Journal: Winter 1996, Vol.16, No.1
Engineers and Medical Researchers Work Together to Find New Way to Detect Birth Defects
A team of researchers from P&S and engineers from the School of Engineering and Applied Science is developing bioengineering methods to provide safer and more cost-effective prenatal diagnosis for pregnant women. With a three-year grant of $706,000 from the Whitaker Foundation, the research team is working across traditional disci-plinary boundaries to learn how to recover fetal cells from the blood of expectant mothers.
Such a method would eliminate the need for amniocentesis and chorionic villus sampling, two costly and somewhat risky procedures used to determine the health and gender of developing fetuses. Fetal cells are extremely rare in maternal blood, occurring at a rate of only 1 in 70,000 cells. Each team member brings unique skills to the effort to solve the problem of isolating enough of these cells to permit diagnosis of potential birth defects.
Edward Leonard, professor of chemical engineering and head of the engineering school's Artificial Organs Research Laboratory, directs the project. The fetal cell work will complement other research under way in his laboratory that seeks to understand the attachment of cells to surfaces, both as a phenomenon that occurs in living systems and as a tool in biotechnology. The surfaces on which fetal cells would be selectively captured will be coated with known antibodies that have a special immunochemical affinity for fetal cells.
Rene Chevray, professor of mechanical engineering and co-principal investigator, will apply a recently developed mixing technique, called chaotic advection, to the problem. Chaotic advection will allow the researchers to very gently mix the blood sample containing fetal cells so that the capturing surfaces have a mathematical certainty of contacting each fetal cell. "This is a rare instance in which a new, novel technique from the field of fluid mechanics finds direct application," says Professor Chevray.
Dr. Dorothy Warburton, professor of clinical genetics and development in pediatrics and an internationally recognized cytogeneticist, will help the team recognize and analyze the chromosomes of fetal cells. Dr. Daniel Lasser, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology and a maternal and fetal medicine specialist, brings expertise on fetal blood to the team and also will arrange for actual tests on blood samples from pregnant women once the laboratory aspects of the technique are developed.
The Whitaker Foundation, which awarded the grant in collaboration with the National Science Foundation, wants the research team to demonstrate the potential cost-effectiveness of the procedure as results become available. Ruby Grewal from the International Center for Health Outcomes and Innovation Research of the Department of Surgery will contribute her expertise.