Our research interests lie at the intersection of synthetic biology, biophysics, materials science and biomedical engineering. Specifically, we focus on the predictive design, synthesis and functionalization of fibrous proteins, including silk, elastin, collagen and keratin, for the development of de novo designed stimuli-responsive and hierarchical biomaterials. These studies encompass a broad range of topics, including fundamental investigation related to semi-crystalline polymer phase transitions, protein structure-function relationships, self-assembly mechanism, as well as applied biomaterial studies related to drug delivery, tissue engineering, surface coating, responsive bio-actuator and bio-electronics.

(1) Smart Material Design 

– Development of protein-based biomaterials with pre-designed stimuli-responsive features for applications in biotechnology and medicine

With the increasing demands of modern life, smart materials have gained substantial attention in the automotive, construction, healthcare, aerospace, and chemical industries. While many synthetic polymers demonstrated initial success for various applications, such as responsive coatings, controlled release carriers, sensors and adaptive shape memory materials, protein-based smart materials are still in high demand for biomedical applications, due to their exquisite sequence control and thus precise chemistry, along with tunable mechanical properties, biocompatibility and biodegradability.

Our lab aims to develop de novo designed protein-based biomaterials, which exhibit changes in one or more properties in response to an external trigger, to address biomedical needs for smart materials. A primary focus of our research is to construct stimuli-responsive yet robust protein libraries of silk-elastin-like proteins (SELPs), using an integrated genetic engineering – modeling approach. Our research also focuses on the functionalization and processing of SELPs using nano and microfabrication technologies, as well as exploiting the stimuli-responsive features of SELPs for applications in biotechnology and medicine, including on-demand drug delivery, smart tissue engineering and soft robotics.

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(2) Regenerative Therapy of Knee Osteoarthritis

– Development of protein-based biomaterials for non-invasive treatments and in vitro disease models of KOA

With the rapid growth of aging population, degenerative diseases have become a growing problem worldwide. Osteoarthritis is one of the most common degenerative joint disease, and it constitutes a leading cause of physical disability among older adults. Current treatments, such as total knee arthroplasty (TKA), have been very effective in treating this disease, but it is an invasive and expensive procedure. Therefore, innovative regenerative engineering strategies are needed to defer or annul the need for a TKA.

Our lab aims to develop protein-based hydrogels and porous scaffolds to address biomedical needs for non-invasive treatments and in vitro disease models of knee osteoarthritis (KOA). A primary focus of our research is to synthesize and functionalize silk-based injectable hydrogels for the delivery and recruitment of cells to promote rapid cartilage and bone tissue regeneration. Our research also focuses on the development of in vitro disease model to identify the key attributes that cause KOA.

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(3) De novo design and high throughput screening of functional proteins

– Development of protein high-throughput synthesis platform and advanced processing strategies for bionanotechnologies

Conventional material design strategies have focused on the rationale design of polymers followed by the characterization of these new or modified polymers for structure-function features to match specific goals. This strategy is conducted in an iterative fashion, leading to trial-and-error outcomes and relatively long timeframes to achieve specific functional goals. There remains an unmet need for a more efficient strategy to discover new functional biomaterials.

Our lab aims to develop new methods to synthesize and fabricate tailored biomaterials with tunable functional properties for bionanotechnologies. A primary focus of our research is to develop a robust high-throughput biomaterials screening strategy for the rapid and efficient discovery of new functional proteins, whereby synthesis and function are directly linked early on in the discovery process to assure a more rapid and efficient outcome. Our research also focuses on using advanced processing strategies, such as microfluidics and 3D printing, to fabricate sustainable biomaterials.

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