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Zhangli Peng receives NSF CAREER award to investigate how cells pass through pores

Zhangli Peng, an assistant professor in the Richard and Loan Hill Department of Biomedical Engineering

Zhangli Peng, an assistant professor in the Richard and Loan Hill Department of Biomedical Engineering, has received a 2024 National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award.

The CAREER Award is one of the NSF’s most prestigious awards and supports early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to advance the mission of their department.

Peng’s CAREER award, entitled “CAREER: Predictive Multiscale Modeling of Cell Migration through Pores between Endothelial Cells,” focuses on how cells pass through an endothelial pore.

More specifically, Peng’s research involves using advanced computer simulations to predict how different components of these red blood cells, neutrophils, and cancer cells affect their ability to pass through small endothelial pores.

Previous research done by Peng motivated his current research and showed that healthy red blood cells in the spleen can migrate through a much smaller slit.

“For example, red blood cells around 8 microns frequently squeeze through endothelial pores around 0.5 microns in our spleens,” Peng said. “This is their regular physical fitness test, which destroys aged cells and diseased cells in malaria and blood disorders.”

“Another example is the neutrophil, which plays a critical role in the immune response by squeezing through the endothelial pores of the blood vessel walls to fight infections or damage in the tissues,” he said. “In cancer, circulating tumor cells squeeze through the endothelial pores during intravasation and extravasation, which results in metastasis in distant organs and is the major contributor to mortality.”

Peng added that to squeeze through these narrow pores, the cells must experience extreme mechanical deformation. Slight changes in the cells’ molecular structures would have significant consequences on the cell’s survival.

In terms of fundamental research, Peng is looking to reveal the biomechanics and mechanobiology of transendothelial migration (TEM) of cells by multiscale modeling and its integration with experimental data. In terms of applications, his research will help to contribute knowledge about many hematological diseases, such as sickle cell disease, acute lung injury, and the spread of cancers.

Peng’s award was received from the Biomechanics and Mechanobiology program in NSF, which supports fundamental and transformative research in those fields. The program emphasizes the study of biological mechanics across multiple domains, from sub-cellular to whole organism.

“We want to understand the biomechanics of the cell and mechanobiology, which says how all the cells sense the mechanical force and make certain changes,” Peng said.

An important aspect of Peng’s research and the CAREER award is to emphasize and promote educational and outreach activity within UIC’s diverse student population and expand STEM within the high school student population.

Finally, Peng acknowledged the collaborations with many experimental groups within and outside of UIC.

“Without careful comparisons with the experimental results, it is impossible to make the computational modeling useful,” Peng said. “I am so grateful to work together with these great experimental groups to study these important problems.”