By Disha Vaswani, Vikram V. and Hyatt Bao
Dr. Levi Wood is an Assistant Professor in the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering at Georgia Tech. Despite being offered the position five years ago, he joined Georgia Tech only recently after the completion of his post-doctoral research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical school. His main area of research is Bioengineering: studying inflammation and its effect on vasculature as well as developing a microfluidic platform to study interactions between cells and proteins which cause the progression of inflammatory diseases.
Dr. Wood first became interested in Bioengineering when he joined a robotics lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a graduate student. He joined the lab to work on robotic hands but switched to a research project developing wearable health monitoring devices which would measure vital signs like heart rate and pulse much like a Fitbit does today.
Later, his advisor set him up with another group at MIT that was interested in growing cells using microfluidic chambers. Dr. Wood was interested in how he could regulate the growth of blood vessels by inserting a scaffold like collagen in the central channel of these chips and seeding epithelial cells in it. For his Ph.D. project, Dr. Wood successfully developed a computational model to predict the elongation rate and the diameter of these blood vessels.
As a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School and at Georgia Tech, Dr. Wood’s work has been primarily related to inflammation in Alzheimer’s disease. The traditional way of thinking about Alzheimer’s disease is in terms of the presence of amyloid beta plaques, extracellular plaques produced by neurons. Previously, it was thought that just targeting the plaques, inhibiting their formation or targeting their clearance could help reduce cognitive decline. However, the results of the first drug came out in 2010, which showed the progression of the disease only worsening. Later clinical trials, which didn’t show much promise, clarified that the plaques are a part of the picture but not the whole story.
Dr. Wood and his team thought that other factors are involved. The observation of the presence of resilient or mismatched cases which had plaques like those in Alzheimer’s cases, only without cognitive decline helped promote this idea. Also, normal indicators of neuroinflammation, microglial activation and astrocyte reactivity, were not present in these patients. Based on this observation, it appeared as though it was not the plaques that causing the trouble, but something in the inflammatory process.
At Georgia Tech, Dr. Wood’s observations at Harvard Medical School becomes part of a broader research. His research involves analyzing inflammatory protein in the resilient cases, looking for markers of inflammation different in the resilient cases and trying to identify orthogonal axis of inflammation in the resilient cases vs. the Alzheimer’s cases. He and his research team are building in vitro platforms to do the job. While a lot of the focus has been on neurons, they think the interaction between the neurons, the microglia, the astrocytes,the supporting cells, and the inflammatory state that develops are related to the blood brain barrier; the vessels at the periphery of the brain become leaky, so peripheral immune cells and epithelial cells and infections enter into the brain.
With the microfluidic platform, by culturing these multiple cell types and neurons, they are trying to understand what happens when the microglia are exposed to the amyloid beta plaque. While visiting the research lab with graduate student, Johnathan Long, I had the chance to watch a recording that showed how proteins affected the permeability of blood vessels which allowed a stain to cross the epithelial cells into the vessel. This involved the use of phosphorescence to track the interaction between epithelial cells and proteins for the development of blood vessels and test the effect of certain proteins on the permeability of these blood vessels, affecting their leakiness.
In addition to his own research, Dr. Wood very much enjoys the company at Georgia Tech and collaborates with numerous researchers at both Georgia Tech and Emory University, studying vast varieties of subjects including inflammation, trauma to the nervous system and stem cell research. He also teaches dynamics of rigid bodies (ME 2202), a sophomore level mechanical engineering course.
Dr. Wood spends his spare time tutoring homeless children and enjoys spending time with his two cats Rhodi and Dapi, named after the cell stains rhodamine phalloidin and dapi.
This Alzheimer’s and inflammation research is a study that provides engineering tools to the biological problems. This study, still in its initial stages, is expected to open many doors for the development of treatments for Alzheimer’s disease. This interview with Dr. Wood was not only a very vivid educational experience for me but also an eye opener as to how much more this study, and I, have to learn and how many great possibilities this process of learning will lead to.