Building Brain Tissue Models
Trinity engineering laboratory takes on Alzheimer’s research
Wednesday, August 25, 2021
Anna Gonzalez, in a blue lab coat, adjusts a sample under a microscope

If building central nervous system tissue from scratch sounds difficult, that’s because it is.

But it is also what engineering science professor Dany Munoz Pinto, Ph.D., along with a team of student researchers, are attempting to do this summer. It is part of a vital effort into understanding key elements in the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s disease (AD), which affects the central nervous system. “Loss of cellular connections, inflammation, cell death and tissue degradation characterize AD progression. Eventually, the brain shrinks,” Munoz Pinto says, “and when these events happen, it’s like a muscle becoming weaker and weaker. If tissue damage is not controlled, AD patients will display memory loss and the decrease in brain function. Eventually the brain will become not functional and sadly the patients die.”

The catch here is that it is hard for patients with AD to donate this type of tissue, which slows down any research into a successful treatment. So, Munoz Pinto and his team are attempting to build their own artificial tissues. “We are combining a bit of material science, chemistry, biology, and stem cells, to develop models of brain tissue,” he says. “We are trying to assess if the biomaterials we design and fabricate can be used as brain tissue models in the context of AD. We want to understand the impact of factors such as mechanical properties, chemical composition, or tissue degradation on the response of central nervous cells. In the long term, we want to evaluate if these proposed biomaterials can sustain the testing of new chemical compounds, an in-vitro platform, that we can use to do testing without having to use human or animal models.”

This type of multifaceted work takes a multi-talented team of students. Lucky for Munoz Pinto, Trinity University is the perfect place for this type of collaboration to happen.

Carson Koch, a neuroscience major on Trinity's pre-med track, studies a research sample under a microscope.

Meet Carson Koch ’22, a neuroscience major on the pre-med track, Anna Gonzalez ’23, an engineering science major, and Meagan McKee ’24, an undeclared (but aspiring) engineering science major.

Koch, Gonzalez, and McKee start their workdays by coming into the lab each morning, checking the plates where the cells are growing in-vitro, then proceed through their daily tasks. The group changes the medium the cells are resting in, splits cells onto more plates, and encapsulates cells in hydrogels. The team has gained valuable experience using equipment such as a confocal microscope, which takes fluorescent images of the cells. Using these images, the group performs an initial evaluation of the biological responses of central nervous system cells to different hydrogels.

One of the goals for the team is fine tuning the materials they are using in the hydrogels, which will eventually serve as a bridge to the next step of the research, where students will be able to study how the degradation of tissue triggers an inflammatory response in cells.

Koch says this work is helping improve his adaptability. “I get very stressed about things not going my way, and this is what [Professor Munoz Pinto] tells me: With any lab work, you are not going to have 100 percent control,” Koch says. “I got a result back yesterday that was not what we wanted, and he actually ended up telling me it looked great—it was exactly the type of thing we wanted.”

Working with two engineering science students, Gonzalez and McKee, has also given Koch a fresh perspective. “It is really cool to get out of the pre-med shell and have these experiences working with engineers that I might not have had otherwise,” Koch says. 

Gonzalez says she is glad to push outside her comfort zone as well. “It’s been great hearing Carson tell us all about the neuroscience involved in this research, while Megan and I have taken about one biology class,” she says. “This has been such a great experience for what I want to do in the future—research and development in biomedical engineering. That is the biggest thing for me.”

Meagan McKee '24, an aspiring engineer, studies a biological sample in Dany Munoz Pinto's lab.

Speaking of breaking out of a shell: McKee started her first year entirely online due to the coronavirus pandemic, so she is thrilled to be working in the same space as the rest of her lab. “This team has been one of the first groups I have gotten to meet in person,” she says. “We are trying to build back the community that was here before, and I am really looking forward to continuing that.”

Being in-person—and hands-on—carries its own challenges, McKee says, like learning to do painstaking, technical work without making a mistake. “This experience has been so great, working in the biosafety cabinet, learning how to keep your plates sterile,” she says. “There is just so much hyperawareness you have to have of where your hands are, and that is super important for the work we are doing.”

All stress aside, McKee says the experience of being in-person in Munoz Pinto’s lab is an incredibly supportive one. “Dr. Dany just gives us so much advice throughout the day,” she says. “We joke about how many turns a conversation with him will take. He is definitely given us all the sales pitch on going to grad school, as well as so much general advice beyond: ‘Do not touch that, you will contaminate your sample!’”

The Alzheimer’s Association and Alzheimer’s Texas have been supporting Dr. Munoz Pinto’s research program. In addition to this support, each member of Munoz Pinto’s team has received some form of scholarship or financial aid that has been a vital bulwark of their experience.

As a McNair Scholar, Gonzalez receives support for 10 weeks of summer research in the form of stipends and housing, as well as year-round academic support. Koch is grateful for his Murchison scholarship. “Without that, I would not be here at Trinity to do all this research over the summer,” he says. And as a Semmes Scholar, McKee gets full tuition to study a STEM subject at Trinity.

Thanks to these sources of support, Munoz Pinto says Trinity is well positioned to assemble strong teams of student researchers in the future. “My laboratory has always been interdisciplinary, because the research we do needs to have elements of chemistry, of engineering, and a lot of biology,” he says.

A slice of a 3D projection of fluorescent images of human neural stem cells in an engineered tissue.

Munoz Pinto points to the building itself that houses his laboratory, the Center for the Sciences and Innovation, as being “designed in a way to help all subjects collide. My office is close to my good friends in chemistry, biology, and neuroscience. I have students in the chemistry department and the neuroscience program that can contribute to engineering. It is always good to have a chemist, a biologist, or a neuroscience major look at the problems faced by an engineering student, and vice versa.”

“Our students have to have that multidisciplinary background if they are going to work as an entire team. And that is very important for me—I am always learning from the students. Every project we work on together is a new discovery,” Munoz Pinto says. “Research is something that is not under your control, but is something that will challenge you, and make you a continuous learner.”

Jeremiah Gerlach is the brand journalist for Trinity University Strategic Communications and Marketing.

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