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Bioengineer Receives NSF Award to Study Cell Migration in a 3D Environment

Stephanie Fraley

Stephanie Fraley, an assistant professor of bioengineering, is the recipient of a $1.1 million CAREER award from the National Science Foundation.

The National Science Foundation has awarded a $1.1 million CAREER award to Stephanie Fraley, a bioengineering assistant professor at the University of California San Diego.

The five-year award will allow Fraley and colleagues to continue developing a unique and innovative technology to study how cells migrate in a 3D environment. The work has applications for the study of cancers, wound healing and regenerative medicine.

“Scientists have been studying cell motility for more than 100 years, but we still don’t understand how cells integrate their molecular machinery to achieve different movement patterns or how this integration is affected by 3D environmental cues,” Fraley said. “This award will allow us to advance knowledge in the field. Ultimately, our goal is be able to control how cells migrate as a form of treatment.”

Historically, cells have been studied in 2D petri dishes. Observations made with the new technology already show that in a 3D environment, cells use their body in different ways; express different genes; and the proteins they produce behave differently, Fraley said.

The device is an innovative high-throughput microscope equipped with three different types of lasers probing the cells with different wavelengths. This allows the device to image, measure, and track cells as they migrate through a 3D network of proteins, which looks like a 3D spider web. The device can simultaneously measure how fast cells are moving; how they degrade and reorganize the protein strands; and how they push, pull, and adhere to the protein matrix.

The microscope can examine 300 cells every two minutes. Fraley and colleagues plan to use machine learning and statistical models to learn from the massive amounts of data gathered as a result.

“We want to build a data-driven model of cell migration,” Fraley said.

Fraley and her team plan to publish several papers as they refine the technology and apply it to a range of cells. So far, they have examined cancer cells and wound-healing fibroblasts.

The NSF CAREER award supports junior faculty who are outstanding teachers and scholars, committed to outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations.


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