Westlake News PEOPLE

A Mechanical Perspective on Biology: Mechanobiologist Thuan Beng Saw

Jocelyn Eikenburg
03, 2022

Email: zhangchi@westlake.edu.cn
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The liquid crystals in your computer screen can actually serve as an inspiration and model for tissue organization in the human body, based on research from Thuan Beng Saw, a principal investigator in Mechanobiology at Westlake University.

"We found that we could describe tissues as liquid crystals with activity. These materials flow like liquid but at the same time have some order, for example, in the collective orientation of the underlying molecules. In the case of the tissue, it is the cells that are trying to orient in the same direction, and since they have activity and can exert mechanical stresses on one another, this gives rise to intricate movements. With this kind of more material or mechanical perspective, we can not only understand cellular movements but also cell death."

Considering biological problems through the lens of physics is part of the attraction for Saw to mechanobiology, an interdisciplinary field exploring how mechanical and biochemical signals combine to affect biological functioning.

"I come from a physics background. But then of course, there are people who are more pure biologists. There are also engineers and chemists who are working in the field together to push this field. And so it's really interesting for me to be able to talk to these people on a daily basis."

Saw, who trained as a physicist in his undergraduate study, explains he was always drawn to biological problems, and found his calling one summer at Ecole Polytechnique in France. "I had an internship doing bioengineering problems, and I found that I fell in love with these kinds of problems."

He followed his passion to pursue a Ph.D. at the Mechanobiology Institute of the National University of Singapore. There, he earned the best thesis award for his breakthrough finding that topological defects in the cell alignment field could lead to cell death. After graduation, he stayed at the university, expanding his research as a recipient of its prestigious Lee Kuan Yew Postdoctoral Fellowship, which is awarded annually in Singapore to two individuals identified as promising and exceptional young academic talent in science, engineering and medicine.

At Westlake, he now focuses his efforts on expanding the scope of biology to incorporate other important physical parameters, with a special interest in considering how electrical signals are integrated into the biological framework.

"When people think about bioelectricity, what first comes to mind is neurons or heart cells," says Saw. "But actually, the other non-excitable cells, such as epithelia, also have important electrical properties." He adds, "Our research showed that the endogenous electric fields in simple cell lines  can control cell division, cell death and tissue structure during homeostasis. So one direction I'm looking at is whether I can apply these principles to use them to control stem cell fate," noting that his research could have future applications in tissue engineering.

Pushing the boundaries of the discipline remains an important aspect of his work. "Mechanobiology as a field has reached a point where either you apply the same principles in, but with more complex ex vivo/in vivo systems, or you can look for new principles. So I am trying to do a bit of both."

He views Westlake as an ideal place to achieve such research goals. "When I was recruited by the dean, he mentioned that Westlake is built for the long term and they would support all basic research as long as it's interesting and meaningful. So with the backing of the school, we can put our minds into doing this kind of work."

For Saw, it's an endeavor filled with endless fascination. "One thing that still amazes me every time I'm thinking about it is, just by using very simple physical ideas, you know, based on first principles, you can actually understand and even predict some very complex biological phenomena."