Undergrad in the Lab: A look into Lily Hiser’s work in the Bursac Lab

Lily Hiser, a junior at Duke, has been working in Dr. Nenad Bursac‘s lab.  Lily is pursuing a degree in Biomedical Engineering

Lily Hiser, undergraduate researcher in the Bursac Lab

What excites you about your work?

To me, tissue engineering is the most exciting area of research in the biomedical field. It is the perfect mixture of biology and engineering, as it takes prowess in both to create a successful tissue. Thinking big picture, I can personally imagine a future where engineering tissues is an everyday part of medical research, whether this is for drug testing, implantable devices, or some other application. Being in such a cutting-edge area of research is such a privilege for me, and I am still amazed every day I go into the lab and see the muscle tissues that we have created working like a muscle should!

  1. Why did you choose to study in Dr. Nenad Bursac’s lab for your undergraduate research project?

Before matriculating into Duke, I had the privilege of doing research in high school at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine. I had never been exposed to that caliber of research before, and I was particularly fascinated by the area of tissue engineering. My experience there propelled me to pursue a degree in biomedical engineering, and I knew that I wanted to do research in tissue engineering while I was at Duke. I had always been impressed with Dr. Bursac’s groundbreaking work, and I knew that doing research in his lab would be an incredible environment for learning and the development of my own research skills. I chose to study in his lab because I knew it was an area of research that I was very passionate about, and I was excited by the opportunity to experience it firsthand.

  1. What has been your favorite project in the lab?

So far, my favorite project in the lab has been my work with the Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) project. DMD is a genetic disorder that causes a mutation in dystrophin, a protein which is important for maintaining muscle structure. Currently, there is no curative treatment for DMD, but there are a variety of drug treatments being developed. However, the animal models which are used for DMD drug testing, particularly the murine models, do not provide realistic modeling of the severity of the disease in humans. DMD can be caused by over 4000 unique genetic mutations, each one causing the disease to present itself in varying severities. The current mouse models only possess two genetic mutations, and it takes over a year for the model to display more advanced disease symptoms. Even then, these models are much milder than what is seen in DMD patients. This project is focused on creating an in vitro, patient-specific human model of DMD, which would more accurately model the various, unique severities of individual patients. My work has been focused on increasing the functionality and accuracy of the model, as well as using the model to test prospective drug treatments.

  1. The Bursac lab has 5 undergraduates working currently in his lab. Is there much overlap in undergrad projects or are you all working on different projects?

For the most part, each of the five undergraduates in Dr. Bursac’s lab is working on his or her own individual projects. Personally, I work very closely with another undergraduate student, Simal Soydan. We were trained together and share a lot of responsibilities on various projects. However, even though all the undergraduates do not work together, we do collaborate as far as communicating about different techniques. If someone has experience with a specific lab technique or expertise in a subject, we are always ready to collaborate and share our knowledge.

  1. What’s next for you? Your research?

As I continue to do research in Dr. Bursac’s lab, I am looking forward to continuing to grow my laboratory technique portfolio, as well as simply learning as much as I can from all of the amazing people I work with. For my research, I am looking forward to continuing to work on the DMD model, particularly with the possibility of testing some prospective gene therapies for DMD patients. Our project is also looking for ways to enhance the ability of the muscle to simulate human biology, specifically by developing methods for incorporating other biological systems, such as immune cells, into the mu

scle model. By doing this, the model will be able to demonstrate how the various DMD treatments affect not only the muscle, but the body as a whole.

Side by side comparison of engineered healthy muscle tissue (left) and DMD model muscle tissue (right)Side by side comparison of engineered healthy muscle tissue (left) and DMD model muscle tissue (right)

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