By Matthew Chin

Andrea M. Kasko, assistant professor of bioengineering at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, has received a 2011 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award from the National Institutes for Health (NIH).

The NIH award program supports exceptionally creative investigators at an early stage in their career who have proposed highly innovative projects. These projects hold potential for a significant impact on an important biomedical or behavioral research problem. The research grant is for $1.5 million over five years.

The award supports Kasko’s research in utilizing light-responsive biomaterials to fabricate and manipulate chemically and physically complex three-dimensional cell microenvironments. The research has applications in developmental biology, tissue engineering, regenerative medicine, therapeutics and disease models.

“It’s a great honor to be selected for the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award,” Kasko said. “This particular award allows us to tackle a large and complex problem – that is, how can we recreate the natural environment of cells and use it to understand their behavior and discover new therapies – without having to break the project up into several smaller projects. Being able to assemble a larger team to simultaneously explore multiple areas allows us to work at a more rapid pace and to get a much more complete picture than we would otherwise be able to do. We’re excited to see where this research takes us.”

“Andrea’s research in biomaterials holds great promise for health care applications and we’re delighted she’s been recognized with this award from NIH,” said UCLA Engineering dean Vijay K. Dhir. “It also is an example of the excellence and creativity of faculty and students here at the school who are committed to improving lives through health care innovation.”

Kasko is the fifth UCLA Engineering faculty member to receive the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award in the past three years.

Kasko leads a research group that works with hydrogels, which are widely used for three-dimensional cell culture because they recapture some of the important properties of the natural environment of cells, such as high water content.

“What is unique about our approach is we have incorporated chemical groups into our hydrogels that respond to light,” she said “This allows us to change the environment around the cells, for example, by releasing a drug, or making the material softer. Light is a singularly useful and precise stimulus to work with, because it is user-controlled and its effects only occur where and when you shine the light. This gives us both spatial and temporal control over material properties.”

Light-responsive biomaterials can help create physically and chemically complex 3-D scaffolds for cells. Precise control over biomaterial properties in 3-D is critical to capture the complex cascades of signals and complex microenvironments found in nature.

Down the road, generating accurate 3-D models of tissue, whether healthy or diseased, could help researchers understand how that tissue develops or heals, and how it responds to its environment.

Kasko is one of 49 researchers that received the award this year, NIH announced today (Sept. 20). Also receiving an award is Heather R. Christofk, a UCLA assistant professor of Molecular & Medical Pharmacology at the David Geffen School of Medicine’s Institute for Molecular Medicine.

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NIH Director’s New Innovator Award