Madison College students think outside the shell in stem cell project

Of all the technologies used to advance stem cell research, this one breaks the mold: A bag full of colorful plastic Easter eggs from the local Dollar Store.

The toy eggs were the humble beginnings of an engineering class project led by 16 Madison College students, who took on a design challenge from Morgridge Institute for Research postdoctoral research assistant Katie Vermillion. The challenge: Is it possible to enable very young chicken embryos to continue to survive outside their shells?

Vermillion uses chicken embryos as an ideal model for studying regenerative biology and embryonic development. They provide a particularly simple and visual environment in which to study the behavior and differentiation of stem cells.

Since chick embryos lack a developed immune system, scientists are able to engraft other types of cells — including mouse and human cells — into the friendly 3D confines of the embryo and study their behavior. Under the right conditions, the introduced cells can thrive.

Vermillion’s problem was that, unless she allowed the embryos to develop somewhat, fewer than one in four of her chick embryos stayed alive outside the egg. Her first break in solving the problem came from regenerative biology student intern Kylie Callahan, a sophomore engineering student at Madison College. Her program includes the opportunity to take on real-world engineering challenges and create prototype solutions.

The Madison College team. Front row, left to right: Kylie Callahan, Boris Kabistan, Derek Zenger, Chelsea Steeves, Garrett Thruman, Katie Vermillion, Cayana Amaguana. Back row, left to right: Matthew Walsh, Kevin Thiemer, James Ewald, Kitt Kinderman, Jake Stone, Forrest Hawkinson, Albert Latham. Not pictured: Melissa Zuengler, Bryce Gasgow.

Vermillion pitched her problem to the Introduction to Engineering class, led by Ken Walz, Allen Weishoff and John Grade, and the team chose the job for the spring 2016 semester.

“The biggest challenge at first was not having any idea what made them survive or what didn’t,” says student James Ewald. “In the beginning we did a lot of tests, studied up on embryos and the types of things they needed to survive. We thought that oxygen levels, moisture and humidity, and the shape of the egg all played a role.

“We just sort of went gung-ho testing all kinds of stuff to find out what would work,” he adds, including salt-shakers, coffee filters and host of other unusual products.

How did the team crack the code?

Katie Vermillion, postdoctoral research assistant in Morgridge regenerative biology, uses chick embryos as a model organism in her research.

“We went to the Dollar Store,” says engineering team member Chelsea Steeves. “One day in class we were starting to test for the different variables and needed to get some cheap materials for experiments. We decided to go to the Dollar Store and were fortunate it was spring and Easter season, so we grabbed a bunch of plastic Easter eggs. That was what really got the ball rolling and allowed us to determine that the shape of the egg shell was really the most crucial thing in helping these embryos survive.”

The egg’s shape offers many natural benefits, adds student Albert Latham. “It allows the yolk to actually sit in the middle of the white, instead of floating up at the top,” he says. “If there is too much room, white floats away and uncovers the yolk, causing it to dry out.”

By conducting the early experiments with plastic shells and getting many of the embryos to survive for 72 to 90 hours, the group then transitioned to Solidworks computer-aided design and 3D printing to optimize the shape and materials. The group has delivered prototypes to Vermillion for further testing and improvement.

“One of the great things about this class is the students aren’t creating just one prototype, they continue to test and improve their designs,” says Vermillion. “They will be able to work on the project over the summer. If we can make this work, these will be publishable results.”

Students described the class projects as a great break from their theoretical academic work and a valuable addition to their portfolio. The teams receive a $500 budget and access to available equipment they need to build prototypes. Other 2016 projects involved reducing phosphorous in area lakes and developing a new type of frame for a stove.

The project’s biggest surprise?

“Easter eggs worked,” says Latham. “We tried all of these really complicated designs and the most successful one was the Easter egg wrapped in Saran wrap.”

Vermillion says the research goal of this project is to improve the technique of engrafting cells into the developing embryo.. “For example, if we are introducing mouse stem cells, we would hope to see them engraft and properly function in the developing chick tissues.”