Sup­pose you’re hiking through the forest on a sunny after­noon as a light breeze passes through the trees, gently grazing your skin. Sud­denly the sky opens up and a rain­storm ensues. The trees keep you dry, but the weather worsens and 50 mile-​​per-​​hour winds start knocking down trees, leaving you unprotected.

This is sim­ilar to what it’s like inside our blood ves­sels, explained Eno Ebong, a new assis­tant pro­fessor in the Depart­ment of Chem­ical Engi­neering. Her research focuses on studying the effects of the mechan­ical forces of blood flow on the endothe­lial cells that line and pro­tect our blood vessels—work that is aimed at advancing vas­cular dis­ease treatment.

Under normal cir­cum­stances, the envi­ron­ment inside our blood ves­sels resem­bles a quiet, breezy day. But some­times, it gets a little stormy. For instance, at branches, con­stric­tions, or cur­va­tures the geom­etry of a vessel becomes askew. Another way to think of it is like the plumbing of a house, when water flow prob­lems occur at the pipes’ curves. The same is true in the human body’s plumbing, Ebong said. Geom­etry changes cause flow dis­rup­tions, effect the endothe­lial cells lining and pro­tecting the vessel, and can even­tu­ally lead to plaque build up.

Thank­fully, the ves­sels’ endothe­lial cell lining has its own pro­tec­tive minia­ture forest, called the gly­co­calyx. Con­sisting mostly of sugar mol­e­cules and pro­teins, this struc­ture stands on end like a forest of tiny trees. It’s also the pri­mary focus of Ebong’s work.

I study the struc­ture of the gly­co­calyx under dif­ferent flow con­di­tions,” said Ebong, who served as a post-​​doctoral researcher and pro­fessor at the Albert Ein­stein Col­lege of Med­i­cine before coming to North­eastern. “I try to make the con­nec­tion between gly­co­calyx struc­ture and its function—or dysfunction—as a pro­tec­tive coat on top of the endothe­lial cells.”

In pre­vious and ongoing studies, Ebong’s group has con­firmed and defined the means by which the gly­co­calyx plays a role in endothe­lial cell pro­tec­tion. When new enzymes or manip­u­lated genes were intro­duced and broke down dif­ferent com­po­nents in the gly­co­calyx, her team observed sig­nif­i­cant dis­rup­tions to the way the endothe­lial cells lining the blood ves­sels were impacted by flow. “The gly­co­calyx appears to be so much more com­pli­cated than we expected,” she said.

By under­standing the roles that the dif­ferent gly­co­calyx com­po­nents play in the material’s pro­tec­tive func­tion, Ebong said, she hopes to iden­tify new tar­gets and develop new tools to pre­vent, diag­nose, or treat vas­cular disease.