Engineering researcher Kristen Comfort won a five-year, $542,000 National Science Foundation CAREER award to support her quest to build a cellular model that acts more like a human body, allowing for a better understanding and visualization of human-drug interactions. Her research could lead to better ways to deliver medicine straight to the source of an illness – a malignant tumor or infection — without the cost and ethical concerns of animal testing.

Comfort has tested 3-D cultures, multicellular systems and fluid flow models individually, but she wants to use her award to tie it all together. Comfort will set up the systems in her first year and use the rest of the term to examine how nanomaterials, tiny particles used to deliver medications in the body, interact with the systems.

"It's more than just the results; for students, it’s also about the experience."

"Traditional tissue cultures are typically static. You sit them in an incubator and they stay there. These cultures are two-dimensional, grown in a single layer," Comfort said."But humans are 3-D beings with systems where everything is moving. I want to use this grant to build a 3-D scaffold to support cell culture systems that mimic a human's physiological flow using a pump to reproduce capillary flow rates."

One model will have lung, liver and skin components to replicate how people inhale a material, which is filtered through the liver and settles in the skin. Another planned model will replicate an immune system. Comfort also hopes to have those systems communicate with each other.

This new system could allow for a faster way to screen potential drugs without the use of animals.

"Expanding from a simple cell system to a large animal system is where most models fall apart," Comfort said. "In addition to ethical issues, the large number of nanomaterials and drugs that need to be tested means animal testing is not always an option. In our system, in addition to determining how the cells respond, we can capture the nanomaterials and examine their properties after they have been run through the system."

Comfort will be able to employ a graduate student and two undergraduate students for the five-year term.

"It's more than just the results; for students, it's also about the experience. In addition to having the resources to carry out some really exciting and innovative research, I’m thrilled to be able to use the CAREER award to introduce science to a new group of students."