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March 20, 2019

WPI professor aims to understand life and death of our cells

PHOTO | Courtesy of WPI Worcester Polytechnic Institute professor Kristen Billiar and Monica Leigh Whitehorn, a junior majoring in biomedical engineering, with a device used to apply mechanical forces to cells in the laboratory.

Cells regularly die inside us, a normal part of our growth. But when cells die when they shouldn't, the result can be autoimmune disease and other disorders, including cancer.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute professor Kristen Billiar is looking to find the causes of those unexplained cell deaths.

With a three-year, $446,563 grant from the National Science Foundation, Billiar, the head of WPI's Department of Biomedical Engineering, hopes to find out what forces and stresses affect programmed cell death, known as apoptosis.

Billiar, recently elected a fellow of the Biomedical Engineering Society, says there's a critical gap in our understanding of the triggers of programmed cell death. Understanding these causes better, he said, could one day have applications for many diseases.

Understanding those causes better could help develop medications that could prevent or cure diseases caused by unexpected cell death.

Billiar's research will include looking at how cell characteristics such as size and shape affect the cell and its ability to die as a normal part of our lives.

Billiar is working with three others on the research: Nima Rahbar, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at WPI; Qi Wen, associate professor of physics at WPI; and Dannel McCollum, professor of biochemistry and molecular pharmacology at UMass Medical School in Worcester.

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