By Tonya Nelson
When you’re little, the only careers you think of having are the basics: lawyer, teacher, doctor, or following in your parents’ footsteps. People become lawyers when they like to argue a point and are good at debating. People become teachers because they love knowledge and watching their students grow.
Doctors heal. They go into surgery or perform routine checkups and find the problem. They come up with a solution to whatever problem they find. Being a doctor isn’t the only way to solve medical problems and save lives. Studying biomaterials, which encompasses chemistry, biology, medicine, tissue engineering and materials science, can lead to medical breakthroughs a doctor wouldn’t think of.
Syracuse University graduate student Ifeanyi Onyejekwe is doing just that. As an undergraduate, she was a mechanical engineer. After she realized how bored she was in her field, she got into the expansive field of biomaterials.
For three years, most of Ifeanyi’s time has been dedicated to a project in the field of medical work. “I know it sounds really cliché, but I hope to improve somebody’s quality of life someday,” she said.
Her project is focused on nitric oxide releasing polymers which reduce blood clotting during cardiovascular grafts. Polymers are large molecules composed of repeating structural units. There’s a vast range of properties in polymers, so their role can be seen in plastic water bottles as well as life essential proteins. The use of polymers in the biomedical engineering field is highly important as they are compatible with the human body.
Ifeanyi is specifically looking to design polymers that can release the nitric oxide in the body for up to 120 days. She believes that in order to prevent the formation of blood clots, the nitric oxide has to be released over a long period of time.
Nitric oxide is a signaling molecule in the human body; it chemically transmits information between different cells. The body essentially plays an ongoing round of telephone, as these cells send molecules with the signal to interact with receptors of other cells, which finally triggers the response.
Nitric oxide can work wonders in the body. Its many functions include: aiding the control of blood circulation, nerve communication, learning and memory and helps regulate the activities in many organs. In its gaseous form, however, it can be very dangerous if inhaled.
In Ifeanyi’s case, the nitric oxide inhibits vascular smooth muscle contraction and growth, as well as preventing white blood cells from sticking.
Currently, ePTFE and Dacron are used to make vascular grafts, but since they are so small there are often problems with blood clot formation and narrowing of the blood vessel.
After three years of research, Ifeanyi is in the cell culture stage. She tests the materials to ensure they’re compatible with live cells. Her solutions are also tested to see if they encourage cell mobility and growth.
Her work hasn’t gone without bumps in the road, though. “Research is never smooth sailing. If anybody told you that, they’re a liar,” Ifeanyi said.
When initially starting her work, Ifeanyi didn’t realize water in her solvents could impact the material. She discovered that even the small traces of about 2% of water in methanol could sometimes have negative impacts on the synthesis of her materials. Theoretically, she’ll need to use anhydrous methanol, or methanol without any water.
Ifeanyi hopes to see the completion of her research in the next two years. The biomaterials facilities at Syracuse University have aided her process in offering what she believes many other labs cannot.
“These labs are amazing, up to date and efficient,” she said. With the backing of a wonderful working environment and her hard work, someday soon Ifeanyi will be among the healers improving others’ quality of life.