Understanding How the Nervous System Regulates Gut Inflammation

ChE Assistant Professor Abigail Koppes was awarded a $500K NSF CAREER Award for “Defining the regulators of enteric plasticity in engineered microfluidic environments.”


Gut Instinct

There’s a growing awareness of the connection between the human brain and the intestinal tract, but many questions remain. Why do human neurological disorders, such as anxiety, often manifest themselves with irritable bowel syndrome and other conditions? Why do Crohn’s disease and other intestinal disorders have broad implications for the nervous system?

Since joining Northeastern faculty in 2014, Assistant Professor Abigail Koppes, chemical engineering, has been investigating these topics.

“The human body is incredibly complex, with a nervous system that acts as an ‘information highway,’ sending signals and triggering reactions,” Koppes notes. “Because we don’t understand the invisible mechanisms at work, we are unable to intervene in a helpful way. If we can figure out why the brain triggers a certain response in the gut—and vice versa—we can develop better treatments and improve patient outcomes significantly.”

Koppes’ research focuses on developing new, non-invasive methods of exploring human cellular responses to biological signals in her Advanced Biosystems for Neuroengineering Laboratory. With almost one-third of Americans currently experiencing clinical anxiety or depression—a statistic that is growing rapidly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic—her efforts have wide-reaching implications.

Recently, the National Science Foundation (NSF) granted Koppes a $500K CAREER Award, titled “Defining the Regulators of Enteric Plasticity in Engineered Microfluidic Environments,” to further her research. She and her team are developing plastic, disposable handheld devices that expose engineered tissue to a range of signals, then measures its response.

“This new platform will enable researchers to discover ways of turning pathologies ‘on and off’ via different kinds of biosignals,” explains Koppes. “It’s a cost- and time-effective means of testing tissue behavior, without risking the health of human or animal subjects. We can easily study reactions at the benchtop, then apply those findings in a clinical setting.”

Koppes’s lab is partnering with doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital and Boston Children’s Hospital, as well as collaborators in Northeastern chemical engineering, bioengineering, and biology faculty. She came to Northeastern as the first ADVANCE Future Faculty Fellow in the College of Engineering in 2013. The fellowship supports translational research that addresses global challenges and enhances social well-being, while also creating a vibrant, diverse community across the university.

“I’ve been fortunate to be part of an incredibly strong group of women researchers and diverse faculty members,” says Koppes. “Engaging in academic research is challenging, but Northeastern has created a real sense of community that makes it much easier and more rewarding.”

Award Source: NSF

 

Related Departments:Chemical Engineering