Thirteen years and millions of cells ago, Kristen O’Halloran Cardinal began the tissue engineering lab at Cal Poly. Her lab work combines her passions for both engineering and what she calls the “squishier side” of working with cells and living things.

When she first began her work, O’Halloran Cardinal was focused on growing and testing coronary blood vessels. Then, in 2016, a former Cal Poly student reached out to help test an aneurysm device he was working on.

Aneurysms happen when a person’s blood vessels bulge out or burst, which can cause them to suffer strokes or die, according to O’Halloran Cardinal. For the last four years, the lab’s primary focus has been developing and growing blood vessels to test aneurysm devices.

The idea of tissue engineering, O’Halloran Cardinal said, is to design or recreate tissue by taking cells, the smallest living building blocks, and putting those onto an engineered scaffold, or template of sorts.

For O’Halloran Cardinal’s lab specifically, students gather blood vessels from safely discarded umbilical cords and use them to put on what she likes to call “fancy straws.” Then, researchers place the vessels in a bioreactor so that more cells can live and grow.

When people test on animals, O’Halloran Cardinal said, they will create the problem in the animal and then treat it.

By growing their own cells to work on, the lab practice is both cost-effective and within ethical concerns held among some communities in the field.

“We really like our approach of, ‘Let’s cause the problem in a dish that’s not hurting anybody, and then try to test it and treat it there,’” O’Halloran Cardinal said.

O’Halloran Cardinal typically has between 10 and 15 students, both graduate and undergraduate and often in the engineering and biomedical engineering field, assisting her in the lab. However, she said she will speak to anyone who is interested in any aspects of the tissue engineering process.

Biomedical engineering sophomore Alyssa McCullough has worked about 10 hours per week in the lab since March 2019. The general process of tissue engineering, she said, is to start with growing cells. Students build a silicone structure for the blood vessels while inserting cells into them, and wait a few days as cells grow into the structure.

Then, biomedical engineering graduate Ashley Turcott stains and takes pictures of them to determine how well they did. Based on the photos, the students make improvements and start the process over again.

For Turcott, the biggest challenge lies in trying to recreate the complex systems that happen naturally in people’s bodies everyday.

“You’re trying to do something that humans were not meant to do,” Turcott said. “Your body has it down to a tee, it knows exactly what kind of coatings and knows how many cells to lay down and we are trying to copy what nature does itself.” 

The process is oftentimes complicated, but according to McCullough, the struggle is worth it.

“I find that a lot of the protocols that we’re working with are super complicated,” McCullough said. “There are a lot of unknowns, a lot of variables and it can be frustrating at times because sometimes it fails, but after a lot of time you end up figuring it out.”

Although it has its setbacks, the two students said they are excited to learn more about this side of medicine.

“[Engineering tissue] is really helping people become healthy again,” Turcott said. “So, the work that we’re doing, while it’s not quite there yet, is making leaps and bounds towards creating a future of medicine.”

Working in the lab alongside Cardinal O’Halloran has been a positive experience, according to Turcott and McCullough.

“I have never had a professor who has put so much into me, who has put so much of herself into me,” Turcott said.“She pushes you, she believes in you and that’s something that is pretty unusual for faculty I’ve worked with. They’re all great in the department, but she just has that something extra.”

While Dr. O’Halloran Cardinal said she has the privilege of running her lab and driving the ship per se, her students have been key for all of the day-to-day progress they have made in the lab.

“I can’t emphasize enough the role that the students play in it,” O’Halloran Cardinal said. “I think it’s an impressive compliment to the students themselves and just to Cal Poly, the type of students we get and the environment we have here.”

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