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Professor uses physics to study Sickle Cell disease

By Alban Murtishi
On April 11, 2014

One may question the legitimacy of associate mechanical engineering professor, George Lykotrafitis' research on sickle-cell disease, but after being published in Biophysical Journal last March, he has proven the merits of taking a physics approach to a biological topic.
Sickle-cell disease causes some blood cells, which are normally plump and round, to become sickle shaped, and these morphed cells are the cause of blockages in the blood vessels. These blockages can lead to chronic pain for sickle-cell patients, but they can also lead to stroke or immediate death.
Lykotrafitis brings his physics and engineering background to determine why these cells morph the way they do, and to delve deeper into the actual differences between a sickle cell versus a healthy one.
"For example we measure stiffness, and stiffness is a classical property of a material, everyday in mechanical engineering we talk about stiffness in materials." Lykotraftis said.
In order to attack the issue from both a physics and biological perspective, he has also recruited the help of Biree Andemariam, an associate professor of medicine at the UConn Health Center in Farmington.
"I was intrigued by his atomic force microscope's ability to measure changes in adhesion on the surface of a single red blood cell, and I could see how there was direct applicability to sickle cell disease in terms of dissecting the disease process as well as using the system to identify new treatments." Andemariam said.
Andemariam mentions the atomic force microscope, which refers to the method of atomic force microscopy that Lykotrafitis is employing in his research.
The atomic force microscope allows the researcher to scan the surface of a cell. This not only takes images of the cell, but also provides insight into the stiffness of the cell. The major differences of a sickle cell to a healthy one are shape, stiffness and adhesion, all of which cause the sickle cell to create painful and life threatening blockages.
The data gathered on these factors, as well the unique approach regarding their differing fields of study is what led to Lykotrafitis and Andemariam to be published in Biophysical Journal.
"Its a really quality journal. It solidifies the progress made by our research collaboration, it gives increased visibility to the university, and it moves forward the president's vision of creating one campus," Andemariam said.
Also unique to her research with Lykotrafitis is that it is being coordinated through two different UConn institution locations, Farmington and Storrs.
"It took quite some time to get through some of the red tape, but we've gotten to the point now where we've developed a seamless system to create collaborative work," Andemariam said.
 Through their collaboration, they have developed a strong hypothesis regarding the differences in sickle and healthy cells. Specifically, they state that the more adhesive the sickle-cell, the more severe it is to a patients' health.
Lykotrafitis interest in a biological issue from a mechanical perspective is not entirely unique in the research world.
"Around 2006, many people who were working on mechanical engineering wanted to expand their way into living matter, and there are mechanical challenges there, but that what happens is you can not directly apply what you know about mechanics to cell mechanics, it's not traditional mechanics." Lykotrafitis said. "But it was something that I wanted to work on."
He describes mechanical engineering as a hub where one can apply their knowledge into many different fields.
"The main point of someone who comes from engineering is that you measure things, you measure forces," Lykotrafitis said. "You don't make a qualitative conclusion, you make quantitative conclusions."

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