As a mechanical engineer, Dr Lining Arnold Ju never thought that he would be working on cardiovascular problems.
It was when he was working in the US that he first started thinking about the field of mechanobiology.
“When I was there, my father had a heart attack,” he told create. “I was called by a doctor in China who said, ‘You’ve got to go home and take a look at your dad’.”
The doctor told Ju that one of his father’s arteries had occluded: a clot was blocking the blood vessel. It was alarming news, but as the doctor explained how he arrived at his diagnosis — by observing the haemodynamics, or the pattern of flow in the bloodstream — Ju realised that he was already familiar with many of the concepts.
“They said, ‘Usually when you have lots of these shear patterns, especially turbulence, and then the flow disturbance, that triggers blood clot formation and exacerbates the occlusion, leading to cardiac death’,” Ju recalled.
“I was amazed that all the terms and terminology that I learned from mechanical engineering classes could be translated into understanding my father’s heart attack.”
Ju’s father recovered and is healthy today, but the engineer, who is now a Lecturer in the University of Sydney’s School of Biomedical Engineering, had seen a new path for his career. He wanted to know more about how mechanical forces affected haemodynamics.
“The question is, can we develop new engineering principles and technologies to harness the force, and basically to turn the dark side of the force into the good side of the force,” he said.
“And then to solve the problem or slow down the problem.”
Ju’s work on the subject has been impressive enough to win him a Young Tall Poppy Science Award from the Australian Institute of Policy and Science. The awards are given to recognise the achievements of Australia’s outstanding young scientific researchers and communicators.
Mechanobiology — the field to which Ju’s research belongs — looks at how forces affect the mechanical properties of cells. In his work, he figures out which mechanical forces are acting on platelets — the tiny blood cells that cause clots to form.
“Then we use that as a drug screening platform, to see which drugs can target this mechanobiology,” he explained.
To do this, he makes use of another cell already present in the body: red blood cells.
“The red blood cell has great elasticity. When you have mechanical shear force, the cells deform — they change shape,” he said.
“I use the red blood cell as a force transducer to … understand the force effect on the platelet. So that is a bio-inspired technology development; we engineer the human red blood cell into a force transducer, and then use that to read out the mechanical signals of the platelet.”
Ju said his work primarily applies to the cardiovascular system, but it could have other medical uses as well. It is only now, as researchers become more comfortable with multidisciplinary work, that they are beginning to understand the potential contained within the research.
“This is a new era and I think it’s a time for the people to work together,” he said.
“The human body is constantly affected by the mechanical effect — the compression, the shift of the fluid, and the pressures.”
One of the effects of COVID-19, for instance, is clotting, meaning Ju’s work could help patients suffering the effects of this disease. He also sees potential use for orthopaedics and in treating some cancers.
But for now, Ju is working on shrinking the technology down to make it easier to use.
“So far, the technology that was in the laboratory is very bulky,” he said.
“The future step is to utilise microfluidic technologies, nanofabrication and also super-computing to develop these chips that can be attached to a cell phone.”
One day, he sees that the technology could be portable enough that therapeutic screening could even be done at home.
But cardiovascular problems remain at the forefront of his mind; while his father has recovered from his heart attack, he has other family members who were not so fortunate.
“That’s why I think if this technology can be deployed to the household, and people, when they get to a certain risk factor category, they can use the technology to diagnose their risk factors for cardiovascular disease,” he said.
“A lot of these tragedies can be avoided.”