Heart and Stroke Foundation grant awarded to Mequanint towards studies on engineered vascular tissues


Western Engineering News | April 13, 2018

Many Canadians suffer from vascular diseases such as high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke. When patients are diagnosed with vessel-related heart problems, they are treated with either angioplasty to open clogged arteries, or, in more severe cases, bypass surgery to redirect the blood flow.

Dr. Kibret Mequanint, Professor in the Department of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering, has received a $252,000 research grant from the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada (HSFC) to support his fundamental work on growing engineered blood vessels using human cells and to study vascular disease models and therapeutic strategies.

Mequanint and his team of researchers recently had a breakthrough in convincing vascular muscle cells to make elastin, a special protein that allows the blood vessel to stretch and contract. Elastin is essential to control blood pressure, and in its absence, the vessels cannot stretch and contract properly.

“Our approach is unique because the temporary porous tubes we use are fabricated from special polymers that remind cells to make elastin,” said Mequanint. 

HSFC has been supporting Mequanint’s research since 2008, as his research aligns so closely with the foundation’s objective to address vascular problems including vessel stiffening due to calcification in elderly patients, fatty deposits and excessive cell growth that clog arteries.

“In the short term, our research is focused on growing human blood vessels so that these tissues can be used to study different factors that contribute to heart disease,” said Mequanint. “As we learn from these engineered model tissues and optimize their functions, the long-term objective will be to use these tissues clinically as a replacement in bypass surgery.”

With regard to Mequanint’s short-term vision, these tissues will be used for drug discovery application. Pharmaceutical companies use animals to test drugs developed for heart disease, which often fails in humans due to the difference in genetic makeup.

“Because of this difference, a positive outcome with animal testing does not guarantee success in humans,” said Mequanint. “A smart approach to get around this problem is to engineer real human arteries so that drugs can be tested reliably and screened safely.”

Although animal studies cannot be eliminated, engineered vascular tissues could address some of the shortcomings of current drug-response study strategies.  

HSFC’s research grant will help Mequanint and his team to accelerate diagnostics and treatment development by addressing three major questions within the blood vessel related to aging and disease:

  • How are undesired minerals deposited into the walls of a blood vessels (e.g. in kidney disease and diabetes patients)?
  • What is the mechanism by which the elastin protein regulates the calcification process in the blood vessel walls?
  • And, how do we better understand the clogging mechanism of the artery when elastin is not present? Do we have plan B?

 Mequanint believes that engineered vascular tissues could serve as a useful tool to answer the above questions.  

“I’m excited about our work and being funded for another three years,” said Mequanint. “Hopefully in about three years’ time, we are one step closer to addressing some of these vascular issues.”