Professor Christopher Chen Presents DeLisi Distinguished Lecture

Professor Christopher S. Chen delivers the 2019 Distinguished DeLisi Lecture. Photo by Dave Green


By Liz Sheeley

Professor Christopher S. Chen (BME, MSE), recipient of the 2019 Charles DeLisi Award and Distinguished Lecture, presented “How Complex is Simple Enough? Engineering 3D Culture Models of Physiology and Disease” on April 1. The award recognizes faculty members with extraordinary records of well-cited scholarship and outstanding alumni who have invented and mentored transformative technologies that impact quality of life.

Chen’s talk was a trip through his research career in understanding how and why cells organize and interact from the unicellular level to the multicellular, tissue level. His pioneering discoveries and work to understand these interactions lay the groundwork for his role as deputy director of the National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center in Cellular Metamaterials (CELL-MET) at BU, a $20 million research center that is working to synthesize personalized heart tissue for clinical use.

“When we take cells out of the body and we study them in culture, they hardly represent in almost any way whatsoever what’s going on with cells that are in the body,” said Chen. “The question is why are they functioning so differently when you take them out? And the main reasoning has been that the milieu that the cells are sitting in is different when they’re in a plastic dish than when they’re sitting on other cells in the body.”

He added that the main focus in thinking about the environment for cells in the lab has been on the molecular makeup to create a culture that mimics the body by adding a series of proteins and growth factors.

“In addition those factors, I’d like to argue that the insoluble environment, or how cells interact with the physical structures that are around them has a major effect on what they do,” he said.

As a tissue engineer, Chen has pushed to understand how the environment surrounding cells regulate cellular functions, such as proliferation, differentiation, migration and suicide. Environmental cues such as the extracellular matrix, neighboring cells and physical forces all play a role in shaping cellular behavior, and how they trigger particular behaviors like tissue formation, is just beginning to be understood.

Dean Kenneth R. Lutchen (right) congratulates Professor Christopher Chen at the 2019 Distinguished DeLisi Lecture. Photo by Dave Green

Recently, he has engineered platforms where cells are organized in 3D cultures that mimic the architecture of native tissues. Understanding how tissue architecture contributes to normal and diseased tissue function has allowed teams to begin to create synthetically engineered tissues that mimics the real thing.

The DeLisi Lecture continues the College’s annual Distinguished Lecture Series, initiated in 2008, which has honored several senior faculty members. The previous recipients are Professor Xin Zhang (ME, ECE, BME, MSE), Professor Joyce Y. Wong (BME, MSE), Professors John Baillieul, (ME, SE), Malvin Teich (ECE) (Emeritus), Irving Bigio (BME), Theodore Moustakas (ECE, MSE), H. Steven Colburn (BME), Thomas Bifano (ME, MSE), Christos Cassandras (ECE, SE), Mark Grinstaff (BME, MSE, Chemistry, MED) and M. Selim Ünlü (ECE, BME, MSE).

Widely considered the father of the Human Genome Project, DeLisi was an early pioneer in computational molecular biology, and also made seminal contributions to theoretical and mathematical immunology. He currently serves as Metcalf Professor of Science and Engineering, and continues to direct the Biomolecular Systems Laboratory, where more than 100 undergraduate, graduate and post-doctoral students have trained.

As Dean of the College of Engineering from 1990 to 2000, he recruited leading researchers in biomedical, manufacturing, aerospace and mechanical engineering, photonics and other engineering fields, establishing a research infrastructure that ultimately propelled the College into the top ranks of engineering graduate programs. In 1999 he founded—and then chaired for more than a decade—BU’s Bioinformatics Program, the first such program in the nation.