Wayne awarded NIH R35 grant for macrophage polarization research

Ryan Noone

Oct 4, 2021

Elizabeth Wayne headshot

Chemical and Biomedical Engineering Assistant Professor, Elizabeth Wayne, has been awarded an NIH R35 grant, otherwise known as the Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA), providing her with $1.7 million in funding over five years.

According to NIH, MIRA is awarded to the nation’s most talented and promising investigators. It aims to provide researchers with more flexibility and stability, enhancing scientific productivity and increasing the chance for significant breakthroughs.

“This grant is a huge honor and achievement for me,” said Wayne.

“As a junior faculty member, it will allow me to pursue groundbreaking research ideas quickly and help me build the kind of research program that I have been dreaming of for so long.”

The grant provides Wayne and her group the resources needed to develop bioluminescence microscopy technology to measure macrophage polarization responses in real-time. Her platform will evaluate the intrinsic and extracellular environmental stimuli that are most important for sensing macrophage polarization in a diseased environment context.

Macrophages are a type of white blood cell in the immune system that support routine tissue maintenance, like destroying foreign pathogens (such as viruses or bacteria) and digesting dead cells. Like shifting gears on a bike, macrophages cycle between these functions by adjusting their behavior based on the present environmental signals. How well a macrophage can shift gears, or polarize, is universally implicated in disease, from cancer to Alzheimer’s disease to healing following a spinal cord injury. However, the ability to measure macrophage polarization in real-time is challenging, making it difficult to monitor the success of therapies like biomaterial implants or nanoparticle drug delivery systems.

“My research is fundamentally about understanding how immune cells, like macrophages, decide how to respond to something like a virus or cancer cell,” said Wayne.

If successful, this information can be used by doctors to design new therapies or even make biomaterials that can direct tissue regeneration.

Elizabeth Wayne, Assistant Professor, Chemical Engineering and Biomedical Engineering

In Wayne’s lab, preliminary data shows that bioluminescence microscopy can deliver data, that when combined with the cell tracking capabilities of traditional imaging, will allow scientists to measure macrophage polarization accurately.

“This research will help us understand how to develop therapies, personalized to the patient’s unique macrophage functional signature, and could lead to the development of better real-time biological sensors, which would ultimately improve patient outcomes.” 

To accomplish these goals, Wayne’s lab will employ ex-vivo culture systems and live bioluminescence imaging to identify novel strategies for measuring macrophage polarization and validate the importance of analyzing polarization in a disease context.

Wayne hopes this research will lead to new strategies for synthetic biology development, enhancement of diagnostic testing and help develop new therapeutic targets. In addition, the knowledge and tools acquired will be applied to other cells where polarization is paramount, such as stem cell differentiation, chemoattraction, and cell metabolism.

For media inquiries, please contact Ryan Noone at rnoone@andrew.cmu.edu.