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Ashley Lindstrom
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A considerable challenge in the realm of neuroscience and neurological diseases is understanding and overcoming what is known as the blood-brain barrier. Lining the brain’s blood vessels, this essentially impermeable barrier that prevents foreign agents in the blood from entering the brain. While this barrier is naturally meant to block and protect, it cannot actively distinguish between what is harmful and what is helpful, so beneficial drug treatments that need direct contact with the brain cannot permeate it.

The solution to this issue is finding a way to bypass the blood-brain barrier and selectively allow helpful substances to enter the brain.

Dr. Donglei (Emma) Fan, an Associate Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, has focused her recent research on finding this solution. She has partnered with a Washington University medical school professor in St. Louis who discovered a biosubstance that shows great promise in manipulating and opening the impermeable connections between cells, also called “tight junctions,” in the blood-brain barrier.

With a specialization in nanomaterials synthesis, manipulation, and associated applications, Dr. Fan made a proposal to investigate and control blood brain permeability through the development of an intelligent biosubstance delivery system based on nanoparticle robots that can deliver and control the release of drug molecules.  These robots will have the capacity to move to specific single and subcellular locations of the blood-brain barrier and deliver localized biosubstances at tunable rates.

Dr. Fan recently received a prestigious award from the National Science Foundation (NSF), which marks her fifth NSF award to-date, due to the scope and implications of her work. Her most recent award, totaling $360,000, will help progress her biosubstance delivery system research even further. With this support, Dr. Fan’s team will obtain important knowledge and understanding of blood brain barrier permeability for their next goal of in-vivo (inside the body) biosubstance delivery to the brain.

The next phase of her work is crucial to anticipating the potential for this new discovery. Dr. Fan and her team will inevitably face challenges, but with many years of experience and dedication to the research, they are confident in overcoming foreseen hurdles. More than 10 years ago, Dr. Fan sparked a strong interest in the field of nanomanipulation, or nanorobotics. This interest has increasingly grown and has been the driving force behind her hard work – she takes satisfaction in knowing that she will find a solution that can be extremely applicable and useful.

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