Mechanics of Diseases Like Muscular Dystrophy Is Emerging as Field of Study

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by Magdalena Kegel |

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Mechanobiology research

Duke University researcher Brent Hoffman is investigating the mechanical nature of major diseases — a research area named mechanobiology — including muscular dystrophy. Hoffman’s research could lead to the development of new treatment approaches for mechanosensitive diseases.

Many complicated diseases have a little understood mechanical component. Dr. Hoffman, an assistant professor in biochemical engineering, wants to understand why and how this component works. For example, in asthma attacks, a chemical or physical stimulus leads to the shutting down of air channels in the lung due to the contraction of the muscles controlling the width of the channel — a mechanical reaction. Likewise, in atherosclerosis, blood flow is affected by the thickening of the walls of blood vessels. Mechanistically, the plaques associated with the disease usually are seen in specific parts of the blood vessels, where they curve or branch. Similar seemingly mechanical processes are known to occur in muscular dystrophy.

As an undergraduate, Dr. Hoffman started out as an engineer intern at IBM, where he worked on the production of chip carriers using copper plating. He then set out to earn a PhD in chemical engineering, studying process control in chemical plants. However, during the first week of graduate school, he attended a biophysics talk and became hooked.

After years of research, sometimes leaning more toward physics and sometimes more toward biology, he is now considered an expert in biomedical engineering.

At Duke, Dr. Hoffman focuses on learning more about the mechanical components of disease. His lab is building tension sensors to measure forces during collective cell migration, a process that is flawed in numerous pathological conditions. The sensors work by changing the color of the light they emit depending on pressure.

Mechanobiology is a new field, and there is currently a scarcity of tools available for reporting a protein’s shape or its forces inside living cells. During Dr. Hoffman’s postdoctoral research, he recorded forces across proteins in their natural environment in living cells. Now he is using his knowledge to expand that technology for use in basic science studies aiming to understand mechanobiology.

He attributes his achievements to his ability to think both as a biologist and a physicist, while the engineer in him is continuously questioning the work’s practical applications. “If you had to pick out the key to my success, it would be doing that,” Dr. Hoffman said in a news release.