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At Northeastern University’s College of Engineering, a second-year student can be at the forefront of groundbreaking medical research. That’s exactly where Erica Wagner, a bioengineering major, finds herself right now. Working in the lab of BioE Assistant Professor Ambika Bajpayee, Wagner has been on the front lines of the creation of a new method of treatment for intervertebral disc issues. She recently received an Early Research and Creative Endeavor Award from Northeastern for this work.
According to the office of undergraduate research and fellowships, “The program encourages undergraduate students from all years, colleges, and majors to deepen their experiential engagement through an original intellectual or creative contribution to their discipline.”
“We’re trying to develop a drug carrier that can increase the retention and localization of the drug in the intervertebral disc,” Wagner said. “Current treatments don’t work that well.”
Current treatments can leave patients needing additional injections to their back as early as a week later, she said. The pain reliever injected could also spread to the spinal cord and cause damage to it, necessitating further debilitating treatment.
Wagner has long been interested in medical research.
“I’ve always wanted to get into this,” she said. “My freshman year, I was looking for professors and trying to find something I found interesting. Dr. Bajpayee had some very interesting academic research, so I asked if I could join her lab.”
Bajpayee and Wagner are working on a drug carrier that could deliver treatment to the intervertebral disc more efficiently and effectively than the injections currently used. After they achieve this, Wagner said, they plan to begin work with live tissue.
“We’re going to begin working on a live culture model for the disc,” Wagner said. “Currently, we extract the discs from a bovine tail where we focus on the connective tissues rather than the viability of the cells. After we develop a carrier using this ex vivo tissue model, we’ll start working with live disc tissue.”
She said one test they plan on doing will assess load-bearing capabilities of the discs injected with the drug carriers because spinal discs have to bear weight.
Wagner said she’s interested in going into this type of research as a career after she receives her degree from Northeastern.