Using stem cells to build quantitative platforms for studying human implantation and early pregnancy failure

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The Simunovic laboratory combines chemical engineering with stem cell and developmental biology to generate quantitative in vitro platforms and to study mechanisms of human embryo and organ development. In recent years there has been a rise in the development of the so-called organoids – complex tissues derived from pluripotent stem cells that in many ways mimic the development and functionality of actual organs. However, protocols of generating organoids have largely depended on spontaneous self-organization that creates loosely organized tissues that morphologically do not resemble actual organs at all. The main goal of our lab is to combine knowledge from chemical and tissue engineering with basic embryo biology to generate complex organoids that will not only follow the proper biochemical signaling during development, but also form the correct tissue morphology. For this project, we are looking for an undergraduate summer student that would work on generating a quantitative in vitro platform that models the formation of the early human embryo implantation. Embryo implantation occurs in the first week following fertilization, which is perhaps the most remarkable example of tissue self-organization in all of biology. This is also the time when the majority of pregnancies fail. In particular, the attachment of the embryo into the uterus is the most difficult obstacle to overcome, failing in about two thirds of medically assisted pregnancies and nearly half of the time in healthy individuals. In addition, the embryo can improperly attach in the wrong place of the reproductive tract, which is called ectopic pregnancy. Ectopic pregnancy is the leading cause of pregnancy-related death in the first trimester. Little is known about the mechanisms that drive early embryo development, implantation, and the subsequent early organ formation, mostly because these mechanisms are so uniquely human that lessons from animal models give very limited knowledge in this case. Furthermore, experimenting with human embryos comes with great technical and ethical limitations. Therefore, to make meaningful progress in our understanding of early pregnancy, it is urgent to develop experimental models that can mimic these processes in a lab.

Direct Supervisor: Mijo Simunovic

The Simunovic lab is seeking an undergraduate summer student who would work at this interface of chemical engineering and developmental biology in generating materials and tools that quantitatively model human implantation and its failure in vitro.

Main techniques that the student would learn and apply are stem cell biology, making chemical scaffolds for 3D tissue growth, and various tissue engineering techniques, such as microfluidics and micropatterning.

Ideally, the student would be a major in chemical engineering with a strong interest in the biological sciences. Preference will be given to chemical engineers on the premedical track. While no prior stem cell biology or tissue engineering experience is necessary, we expect that the student will have a passion for basic biology of early embryo formation and its application to improving women’s reproductive health.

Mijo Simunovic, [email protected]