Drs. Jens Karlsson and Noelle Comolli Awarded Funding for Undergraduate Research in Bioengineering

Two members of the College of Engineering’s Cellular and Molecular Bioengineering Research Group will partner with Merck & Co., Inc. and the International Society of Pharmaceutical Engineering (ISPE) to provide summer research opportunities for undergraduate students interested in biotechnology. The two organizations have awarded Dr. Jens Karlsson, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering, and Dr. Noelle Comolli, Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering, stipends to support two undergraduate students who will perform summer research projects on cryopreservation and nanoparticle development, respectively.

Dr. Karlsson, Director of the Biothermal Sciences Laboratory, plans to work with an undergraduate research student to study the cryopreservation of cells, such as those used at Merck for biopharmaceutical manufacturing. “We know that the safety and efficacy of cell-based therapeutic products, as well as the consistency of product quality, can be adversely affected by the cryopreservation process. We also know that the consistency, viability, growth, and yield associated with cell banks used in the production of large-molecule drugs can be compromised by suboptimal cryopreservation methods,” he says. “We attack such problems by taking a biophysics-based approach, which we believe will yield valuable insights into improving cryopreservation processes used by Merck.”

Dr. Karlsson will leverage the full complement of experimental and computational capabilities of the Biothermal Sciences Laboratory, including a unique high-speed imaging cryomicroscopy system, mechanistic theoretical models of cell biophysical response to cryopreservation, and multiphysics finite element models of heat transfer and phase change during freezing cell banks

With funding from the ISPE, an undergraduate student working under the supervision of Dr. Comolli, Director of the Biomaterials and Drug Delivery Research Laboratory, will seek to develop a delivery system -- most likely a nanoparticle carrier -- to deliver new protein-based therapeutics. “These nanoparticles can serve both as protective barriers for the delicate protein during delivery, as well as targeting devices for specific tissue or organs and provide controlled release,” she says. “Based on the therapeutic chosen for delivery, we can customize the choice of material and target.”

Projects undertaken in the Biomaterials and Drug Delivery Research Laboratory focus on improving drug performance and delivery by engineering existing medicines to work efficiently in a different dosage, release differently over time, reduce side effects, or target specific problems. Some of Dr. Comolli’s current work in this area includes developing a new asthma treatment to deliver a high dose of vitamin D directly to inflamed lung cells, designing nanoparticles to add to drugs that can speed axon growth after spinal cord injury, and developing microparticles that can be added to cancer drug therapies to target tumors directly.

These new research opportunities were facilitated in part by alumnus Brian H. Lange ME ‘88, Operations Director/PMO, North American Operations & Merck Consumer Care for Merck & Co. In addition to providing funds, both Merck and the ISPE will assign industry mentors to each project, which will strengthen ties between the College’s bioengineering faculty and key members of the pharmaceutical industry. 

Dr. Noelle Comolli
Dr. Noelle Comolli
Dr. Jens Karlsson
Dr. Jens Karlsson