The Cancer Center at Illinois’ (CCIL) Tissue Microenvironment (TiME) Training Program published a comprehensive review article outlining important principles and engineering technologies to study the TiME. The recent publication represents a culmination of the hard work by nineteen trainees across four years and numerous TiME cohorts.

The TiME is a complex environment surrounding cells and tissues composed of interacting cells, signaling molecules, and supporting structures like blood vessels. Graduate students in the TiME Training Program come from different research backgrounds across Illinois’ campus ranging from basic biology to engineering, with the common interest of studying the TiME. The program is supported by a T32 grant from the National Institutes of Health and led by CCIL member Rex Gaskins, CCIL Assistant Director for Education Marcia Pool, and CCIL Director Rohit Bhargava.

Ron Payne Headshot

The review article presented the prevailing technologies and a convergent approach with three defining pillars for sensing, analyzing, modeling, and understanding the tissue microenvironment.

With many human diseases originating from the dysfunction of tissue microenvironments, Gaskins originally proposed the idea for a review article to the TiME trainees in 2020. This student cohort worked together to envision the scientific scope of the review and collaboratively write the early drafts.

“I was part of the TiME cohort that initially set out to write a guide for those looking to study the TiME. Because the tissue microenvironment has numerous aspects, it requires many disciplines to accurately study, model, and recapitulate,” said Craig Richard, a 2020 TiME trainee and current CCIL Educational Engagement Postdoctoral Scholar. “The process of writing this paper was like a large group project, but with everyone keen to participate and make it their own. It was interesting to see the paper evolve over time from our initial ideas to what it ended up being, and I think we achieved the goal we initially set.”

Under Gaskins and Pool’s leadership, the project was passed down to subsequent TiME cohorts who continued to narrow in on the final outline and refine the drafts. 2021 trainee and first author of the review Rishyashring Iyer played a pivotal role in bringing the review from its early stages to final publication.

Iyer said, “By the time my cohort received the draft, it was a 50-to-80-page document of incredibly detailed information with a large focus on the biology of the TiME. Most of my cohort came from an engineering background, so we decided to use our expertise in measuring, modeling, and fabricating the TiME. Our engineering knowledge combined with the document written by the previous TiME trainees is how the current published review came to be.”

Tissue Microenvironment Training Program, Craig Richards, Rishee Iyer, Rex Gaskins

Left to right: Craig Richard, PhD; Rishyashring Iyer, PhD; and Professor Rex Gaskins

After all of the content was written for the review by the numerous TiME program trainees, Iyer completed the final edits and designed the figures and artwork for the manuscript. The resulting article is an in-depth review summarizing the engineering principles underlying the chemical, optical, electrical, mechanical, and computational science required to probe, sense, model, and fabricate the TiME. By integrating this broad knowledge into a cohesive review article, it can serve as a guide for researchers who want to study the TiME and a detailed overview for students looking to learn more about it.

Reflecting on the experience, Iyer said, “When you look through each subsection of the article, it is evident how much expert knowledge is needed to study the TiME. We ended up dividing the work by recognizing each trainee’s strengths and expertise. None of us could have written this article alone, so it serves as a tangible output of the community we built as trainees and the support we received from Professors Gaskins, Pool, and Bhargava. I think that the experience was a really unique and rewarding aspect of the TiME program for me.”

Gaskins has led and mentored six TiME Training Program cohorts since 2016 and has recently announced his retirement. He said, “Watching the sincerity and hard work of all the trainees involved in putting together this review was most rewarding. It was satisfying to see the students enhance their interpersonal communication skills through the process and gain knowledge in disciplines that underpin the TiME Training Program. It was a good job well done and a most satisfying way to complete my career in academia.”

You can visit the TiME website to learn more about the program.

Editor’s notes:

The review article “Inspiring a convergent engineering approach to measure and model the tissue microenvironment” is available online.

This story was written by Katie Brady, CCIL Communications Intern