Funding Boosts Unprecedented Look Into Action Within Blood Vessels

June 21, 2004

            An expert on blood cells has won a $200,000 James D. Watson Investigator award from New York State.

            Michael King, Ph.D., assistant professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Rochester Medical Center, studies the chaos that takes place in our blood vessels every moment, as dozens of types of blood cells bump and grind past each other as they’re buffeted about and carried throughout our bodies. King is one of 10 researchers around the state to receive the awards, which are designed to support outstanding scientists and engineers who, early in their careers, show potential for leadership and scientific discovery in biotechnology.

            Much like the forces that occur within a crush of pedestrians jockeying for space on a New York sidewalk, the forces at work within our arteries and veins are extremely complex. King has created a computer formula known as MAD – multiparticle adhesive dynamics – to simulate the flow of blood cells, analyzing how cells in complex suspensions like blood affect each other and the surfaces they’re flowing past.

            Such forces literally have life and death control over us. When an infection develops, we rely on our white blood cells to flow through our blood, recognize the body’s signals that an intruder’s afoot, and somehow step out of the rush and enter the fray. The same forces are at play in cardiovascular disease and the development of blood clots that can kill a person by causing a heart attack or stroke.

            King studies exactly how our blood cells are pushed along by the tide of blood and the force of similar particles around it, and the forces and signals that cells and molecules rely upon to be in the right place at the right time. In one project he is studying how molecules known as selectins, in the blood vessels, flag down the appropriate blood cells in the passing blood stream, much like an observant bouncer might do to help the owner of a popular club cut through the crowd.

            The focus of King’s research is on the cells that form the blood, known as stem and precursor cells. As part of the Watson award, he is building a device coated with selectins that capture the blood’s stem cells so that they can be used to treat diseases like leukemia and other forms of cancer.

He is also working with a Rochester company, Biomed Solutions, to demonstrate an implantable device that could capture the cells right in a patient’s body. That could open the door to something like a high-tech “catch and release” program, where the cells would be captured, modified, and then released as part of a targeted treatment. It might be possible one day for doctors to customize a patient’s blood, depending on the type of infection or health problem they have, or for scientists to direct extra blood cells precisely where they’re needed in the patient’s body.

            With funding from the Whitaker Foundation, King also studies the role of inflammation in atherosclerosis, the thickening of blood vessels that is at the root of much heart disease. King studies how white blood cells stick to the blood vessel lining, become part of the plaque that forms along the blood vessels, and de-stabilize the plaque, contributing to the formation of life-threatening blood clots that can clog arteries.

            King received a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering in 1995 from the University of Rochester, and a doctorate in chemical engineering in 1999 from the University of Notre Dame. He is also on the faculty of the Department of Chemical Engineering and the biophysics & structural biology cluster.

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