Bryan J. Pfister, PhD, a specialist in neural tissue engineering, has been awarded a prestigious Faculty Early Career Development Award by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Pfister, who is an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at NJIT’s Newark College of Engineering, received the award to support and expand his research into rapid axon stretch growth, a technique for regenerating damaged or diseased nerve cells.
In collaboration with a team of scientists at the University of Pennsylvania, Pfister, of Newtown, PA, recreated in the laboratory a natural form of axon growth that occurs through stretching as an individual grows from embryo into early adulthood.
By studying how nerves grow through the stretching technique, he hopes to find clues to repairing traumatic injuries to the spinal cord and other nerve tissue. The team also hopes to develop a nerve-tissue interface that would allow for a thought-controlled prosthesis that would behave like a natural limb.
The research recapitulates an unrecognized and extremely rapid form of nervous system growth that occurs during an organism’s development. As animals grow, nerves that initially span a very short distance continue to undergo enormous growth and can reach meters in length in large animals.
“For example, the blue whale can grow an estimated 4 centimeters per day,” said Pfister. “And the giraffe’s neck increases by about 2 centimeters per day at peak growth. Naturally, the nerves are forced to rapidly expand as well.” He added that the mechanical stretching forces resulting from the growth of an animal may be the key mechanism that initiates and maintains nervous system growth.
As part of the NSF Career program, researchers incorporate educational programs into their investigation. In addition to the seven graduate students on his research team, Pfister has a team of six undergraduates who are helping him build a device that uses live imaging techniques to study axon growth.
Pfister received his PhD in materials science engineering and his MS degree in mechanical engineering, both from Johns Hopkins University, and his BS degree in interdisciplinary engineering and management from Clarkson University.