Understanding the Glycocalyx: How Seaweed and Nanotopography Could Improve Cardiovascular Health


What if seaweed could reverse the effects of chronic inflammation in our blood vessels? Will a better understanding of vascular cells lead to more successful vascular grafts?

Aaron Baker, an associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, has received two research grants to answer these questions.

The grants come from the National Institutes of Health and are primarily focused on understanding the glycocalyx, a furry structure that lines blood vessels and interacts directly with the flowing blood.

The protective glycocalyx is made up of long chains of sugars called polysaccharides. Inflammation in the blood vessels can destroy this polysaccharide lining, leading to increased risk of atherosclerosis and further inflammation. During the progression of vascular disease the glycocalyx lining is damaged, leaving the blood vessels in an unprotected state that is more prone to further damage and formation of atherosclerotic plaques that can restrict blood flow.

Within some types of seaweed there are similar polysaccharides to those found in the endothelial glycocalyx. One of the NIH grants will support Baker’s lab to study if polysaccharides from ingested seaweed are able to augment glycocalyx and prevent atherosclerosis. In a collaboration with Dr. Bruce Daniels, an internal medicine doctor and entrepreneur, they will introduce a sulfated seaweed polysaccharide in small animal models. Their hope is that the polysaccharides will prevent vascular permeability and the progression of vascular disease.

“One advantage is that since these polysaccharides are from seaweed, your body doesn’t possess the enzymes that would normally destroy the endothelial glycocalyx,” Baker says. “The way the seaweed polysaccharides are structured prevents the enzymes from damaging them.”

Baker and his team are focused on finding out which seaweed sugars are best equipped to function like the glycocalyx and how ingesting seaweed could potentially be combined with other therapies.

“For a patient with atherosclerosis, which is a chronic, long term disease, being able to ingest a treatment option, versus some other sort of delivery, would be huge in terms of ease,” Baker says.

The other NIH grant will support research of the role of molecules in the glycocalyx to sense mechanical forces and nanotopographical cues. Specifically, Baker and his team are concerned with the nanotopography of vascular cells in order to grow successful vascular grafts.

Grafts are used to take the place of a blood vessel when it’s clogged. Physicians use material from other parts of a patient’s body to create a graft, but often they need to supplement the graft with synthetic material. This is challenging when working with smaller grafts needed to repair cardiovascular tissue.

Baker and his team are studying the biomechanics of the glycocalyx to see how vascular cells sense force, surface, and their surrounding environment. The goal is to better understand how cells behave when they grow onto vascular grafts and to learn how small structures on surfaces may be able to manipulate cell behavior.