We are pleased to announce that Dr. Blanka Sharma has received a National Academies Keck Futures Initiative Grant on the topic of Collective Behavior, titled “Evolutionary Game Theory Models of Stem Cell Interactions in Tissue Engineering Systems: Achieving Control of Conflict”. These competitive seed grants aim to fill a critical gap in funding for research on new ideas that may be considered too “risky or unusual” for many federal funding programs. Proposals were scored based on their interdisciplinary, relevance to collective behavior at all scales — from cells to societies, riskiness/boldness, and the importance and potential impact of the projects. The multidisciplinary project led by Dr. Sharma, a biomedical engineer, will be done in collaboration with Dr. Matteo Calaviere, a computer scientist at the University of Edinburgh, and Dr. Glyn Palmer, a molecular biologist in the Department of Orthopedics and Rehabilitation at UF.
Dr. Sharma’s research focuses on understanding the microenvironmental cues that affect stem cell functions, and designing biomaterials and drug/gene delivery systems to better control their behavior. This specific proposal explores an entirely new approach to understand stem cell interactions during tissue repair, and how these can be influenced by 3D scaffold architectures.
Congratulations, Dr. Sharma!
Mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) are an important cell source for regenerative medicine/tissue engineering with great potential for repairing/regenerating bone, cartilage, cardiac, and neural tissues. A cornerstone of tissue engineering is the development of biomaterials to provide the 3-dimensional architecture, or scaffold, for stem cells to form new tissues. One significant issue is that MSC populations are inherently heterogeneous, as is their response to microenvironmental cues (eg. differentiating factors, scaffold properties), resulting in populations of cells that differentiate into the desired phenotype and those which do not. The degree of cell heterogeneity, and the interactions between stem cells undergoing different stages or lineages of differentiation within a tissue engineering system significantly impact the characteristics and function of the final tissues. The goal of this proposal is to quantify and model stem cell interactions and conflicts, in order to advance understanding and development of regenerative therapies. Evolutionary game theory models are powerful tools for understanding cellular interactions within tissues. We propose an holistic approach based on evolutionary game theory, experiments and in silico models to understanding how cell-cell interactions and architecture impact the tissue repair process, using cartilage tissue engineering as a model system, which could lead to the development of tissue engineering systems and biomaterials to alter the spreading of non-productive cells and obtain more effective tissue repair. The proposed approach stresses the role of conflicts control and cell interactions within tissue engineering systems, and also proposes an alternative experimental multicellular model for exploring ecological and evolutionary dynamics.