Gulden Camci-Unal’s Collaborative Research Is Supported with $242,000 Grant from the National Science Foundation

Gulden and grad student in the lab
Assoc. Prof. Gulden Camci-Unal, right, and Ph.D. student Gokalp Kurtoglu work in the lab at the Saab ETIC on North Campus.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

Chemical Engineering Assoc. Prof. Gulden Camci-Unal was recently awarded a three-year collaborative research grant worth nearly $242,000 by the National Science Foundation to develop bioartificial pancreas-like engineered tissues that could someday help improve the quality of life of people with diabetes.
Diabetes is a chronic disease in which the pancreas does not produce enough insulin or the body does not respond properly to the insulin that it does produce. As a result, the blood sugar (glucose) always stays high, which can lead to serious, lifelong health complications.
According to the American Diabetes Association, more than 11% of the U.S. population – over 37 million people – has diabetes, and 1.4 million more are diagnosed with the disease each year. The annual economic cost of diabetes in the country runs in the hundreds of billions of dollars.
The researchers fabricate hydrogels to design and construct the tissue scaffolds.
“Individuals with type 1 diabetes and more than 30% of those with type 2 diabetes depend on daily injections of insulin,” says Camci-Unal, who is the principal investigator for UMass Lowell. “However, maintaining optimal blood glucose levels remains a challenge and does not prevent severe long-term complications.”
She says the project will use innovative biomaterials as well as cell and tissue engineering to design and create tiny 3D tissue scaffolds or structures that will support the growth of insulin-producing pancreatic cells, called beta cells. The ultimate goal is to implant these cell-laden scaffolds into the body to help the patient manage glucose levels more effectively.
Collaborating with Camci-Unal on the project is Prof. Emmanuel (Manolis) Tzanakakis of Tufts University. Camci-Unal’s first-year Ph.D. student, Gokalp Kurtoglu, will assist with the lab research at UML.
Engineering Biomaterials for Tissue Implantation
According to the researchers, the implantable engineered pancreatic tissues that they are developing require a significant number of beta cells as well as a supporting network of blood vessels for the tissues to survive and produce insulin. They say one way to reduce the required number of beta cells without decreasing the tissues’ insulin output is to stimulate the engineered cell function by exposing them to light.
The hydrogels are made of hydrolyzed collagen, a protein produced by the body that is a vital structural component of skin, bones, muscles, tendons and cartilage.
“My lab will be taking the lead in developing the appropriate synthetic biomaterials and facilitating the formation of blood vessels inside the scaffolds,” notes Camci-Unal.
The researchers will use hydrolyzed collagen-based hydrogels to design and construct the scaffolds and encapsulate the engineered beta cells to protect them from the body’s immune system. 
The team will also incorporate oxygen-generating compounds as well as cells from the lining of blood vessels (called endothelial cells) into the scaffolds to help promote the formation of the vascular network. 
According to Camci-Unal, their scaffolds have many important characteristics, including high porosity, cytocompatibility (i.e., harmlessness to cells), biodegradability and oxygenation. 
“In addition to diabetes, our scaffolds have the potential for applications in engineering various other tissues such as muscle, liver and neural tissues,” she says.