Chemical engineering at Bloodworks? You bet!

March 24, 2016 at 2:03 pm

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Chemical engineering isn’t just about chemicals. It can be about blood too, says Bloodworks Research Institute’s Dr. Wei Yang.

It’s related to chemical processes and reactions, but some of us are focused on material and biological applications.

Dr. Yang was exposed to the field at an early age: her parents both work for a chemical factory. She was always good at chemistry and wanted to solve medical problems, so chemical engineering was a natural fit – many chemical engineers have careers related to human health.  She earned her PhD from the University of Washington in 2014, and completed a year-long postdoc with her PhD advisor after completing her degree.

Her advisor introduced her to Dr. José López, whose thrombosis research at BloodworksNW aligns with her interests. She joined the López lab in September, 2015.

Thrombosis is unwanted blood clotting. It can lead to heart attacks, strokes, and other sometimes fatal complications. BloodworksNW is the only research institute in the Northwest dedicated to thrombosis research.

Dr. Yang’s work focuses on reducing blood clots created by medical devices. The body’s natural reactions to bleeding and foreign substances can’t distinguish intruders from devices designed to help, like artificial hearts, dialysis, or ECMO.

When proteins in the blood come in contact with these devices, these proteins unravel into long, sticky chains, cling to the devices, and cause platelets to activate and clot. Von Willebrand factor (VWF) is a particular problem – it’s the key protein involved in platelet adhesion and the biggest, stickiest protein in the body.

Patients can have strokes when these clots break off and make it to the brain, and anticoagulants given to prevent clotting cause other bleeding issues. This is especially a problem for young children on ECMO.

Scientists have attacked this problem for decades. Their solutions often work well in the lab, but not in simulations that mimic actual blood flow.

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Dr. Yang’s solution is a polymer that imitates a protein. Because this zwitterionic material binds to water very well, the water interferes with the binding of proteins to the coated surface, keeping the surface clean – even in a complex fluid like blood. When coated onto a device, the polymer prevents VWF from unraveling, attaching, and forming harmful clots.

So far, devices treated with Dr. Yang’s material have remarkable results compared to uncoated devices, in both the laboratory and in blood flow simulations.

We think that if we can reduce VWF, based on current results, it’s likely we can decrease clotting formation for the ECMO system.

Imagine the difference this life-changing medical breakthrough could make for patients in need and the doctors who treat them.

Research is connected to the gift of life, and we’re fortunate to have early-career scientists like Dr. Yang pushing innovative ideas forward.