NIH selects biomedical engineer/hematologist for Emerging Investigator Award and $5 million grant

Woodruff Health Sciences Center | May 1, 2019

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Holly Korschun
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hkorsch@emory.edu

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Wilbur Lam

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) of the National Institutes of Health has chosen Wilbur Lam, MD, PhD, to receive an Emerging Investigator Award, including a seven-year grant of $5 million to Emory University. The award is one of only seven NHLBI emerging investigator awards nationally this year.

Lam is an associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine and in the Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory. He is a clinical pediatric hematologist/oncologist at the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

According to the NIH, the purpose of the Emerging Investigator Award Program is to promote scientific productivity and innovation by providing long-term support and increased flexibility to experienced investigators who currently already hold several NHLBI awards and whose outstanding record of research demonstrates their ability to make major contributions to heart, lung, blood and sleep research. The award is intended to support a research program, rather than a research project, and to provide investigators with increased freedom to conduct research that breaks new ground or extends previous discoveries in new directions.

“Dr. Lam’s integration of medicine and engineering disciplines in novel platforms brings the clinical diagnostic lab to the patient,” says Susan Margulies, PhD, chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory.

Lam’s laboratory uses a multidisciplinary approach to developing new research tools in hematology that can be translated into better care for patients with disorders of the blood and bone marrow. This work spans biology, physics, engineering and medicine, with the aim of answering hematologic questions that are not technologically feasible with current research methods.

“While we are developing microtechnologies to investigate the biophysics of hematologic processes at the micro-to-nano-scale, these microdevices can be adapted to function as novel pre-clinical disease models, clinical diagnostics and drug discovery platforms,” says Lam. “Overall, we use a “basement-to-bench-to-bedside” approach in which the invention, translation and clinical assessment of diagnostic and therapeutic microtechnologies takes place under one scientific ‘roof’ with the ultimate goal of improving the lives of patients with blood disorders.”

Lam’s background as a physician-scientist-engineer trained in clinical hematology and bioengineering has led him to several key discoveries:

  • A technology allowing measurement of the forces generated by individual platelets as they contract during the blood clotting process was published in Nature Materials. Using a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award from the National Science Foundation, Lam then refined the technology to examine hundreds of platelets at once on a microchip-based platform. Specifically he and his team devised a “microfluidic testing ground” in which platelets can demonstrate their strength by squeezing two protein dots together. This technology, which they call platelet contraction cytometry, was described in Nature Materials.

  • In addition, Lam and his team applied microfluidic techniques to develop a microvasculature-on-a-chip device that functions as an artificial blood vessel. This device enables researchers to recapitulate and study the pathological interactions that occur among different types of blood cells and the blood vessel wall in diseases such as sickle cell disease. This was first published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation https://www.jci.org/articles/view/58753

  • In research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Lam and colleagues discovered that platelets can “feel” the mechanical properties of the surface they attach to and physiologically respond to those physical cues of their environment to influence the blood clotting system. Their findings could influence the design of medical devices to decrease clotting caused by implants -- a major problem for patient care.

  • Using their microvasculature-on-chip technologies, Lam’s team also showed how drugs commonly used to fight inflammation or boost blood pressure cause white blood cells to soften, and that this white cell softening helps determine whether they remain in a dormant state along vessel walls or enter blood circulation to fight infection. The NIH-supported research was believed to be the first to show how biophysical effects can control where white blood cells are located within the blood circulation. It was reported in PNAS.

  • The research team developed a microchip “bleeding” device that allows for the simultaneous examination and visualization of all the major components of blood clotting. Because current clinical bleeding tests only assess one component at a time and in isolation, Lam and his team envision the system to serve an important unmet clinical need as a drug discovery platform and potential diagnostic tool. A description of the system, and representative movies were published in Nature Communications.

  • A smart phone app developed by Lam and colleague Robert Mannino uses photos of the fingernails of anemia patients to determine the level of hemoglobin in their blood, replacing the need to draw blood. The technology was published in Nature Communications.