UW Bioengineering faculty member Cole DeForest joined the core faculty in January 2019 as joint assistant professor of chemical engineering and bioengineering. He brings expertise in applying synthetic chemistry and materials science to the department’s biomaterials, protein engineering and regenerative medicine research.

Dr. DeForest joined the UW in 2014 as an assistant professor of chemical engineering and as an adjunct assistant professor in bioengineering. He is also a core faculty member of the UW Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine.

As a classically trained chemical engineer, much of his research has focused on the development of novel polymer-based hydrogel scaffolds for use in regenerative medicine and tissue engineering applications.

More recently, his group has taken on additional bioengineering-based approaches, developing user-programmable biomaterial strategies to reversibly control the dynamic back-and-forth interactions between a cell and its extracellular matrix, the cell’s microenvironment made up of a dense mesh of proteins that both stimulate and respond to surrounding cells. Though such complex communication is known to affect cell gene expression, determine tissue fate, and fundamentally, control whether normal tissues stay healthy or become diseased, being able to mimic or understand the specifics of such signaling remains a current challenge.

“My research program at the UW establishes multidisciplinary methodologies to mimic, exploit and quantify biology’s 4D complexity, ultimately paving the way to new therapeutic targets and treatments of disease through a fundamentally transformed knowledge of basic cell physiology,” he says.

If they can control what, how and when microenvironmental signals communicate with a cell, they can drive key cell functions: differentiation, movement, growth and death, Dr. DeForest says. This has long been a goal in tissue engineering, but conventional techniques have fallen short in many ways.

DeForest research drawing showing photorelease of proteins and an image of the hydrogel in the shape of the UW hHsky mascot.

Photorelease of proteins from a hydrogel. Top: The mCherry red fluorescent proteins are tethered to the hydrogel. Researchers can cut the tether with directed light (blue arrows), releasing the mCherry from the hydrogel (blue arrows). Bottom: An image of the hydrogel after mCherry release patterned in the shape of the UW Husky  mascot (black). Scale bar is 100 micrometers. Shadish, Benuska and DeForest, 2019, Nature Materials.

In recent research published May 20 in Nature Materials, Dr. DeForest and his colleagues reported a new method of tethering proteins to hydrogel scaffolds that preserves their function and provides unprecedented control over their presentation in four dimensions. By targeting just one site on a protein – called the C-terminus – the team was able to maintain the protein’s function while controlling when and where it was bound to biomaterials. Adding their designer peptide, a biologic messenger containing handles that react to laser light, to the C-terminus allows the researchers to tether the protein to specific locations within the hydrogel using light. Plus, the peptide tether holding the proteins in place can be cut using additional laser light, releasing them so the cell can take up their signals and respond on demand.

“Based on how we target the laser light, we can ensure that different cells — or even different parts of single cells — are receiving different environmental signals,” said Dr. DeForest in a news release by the UW News office. “This platform allows us to precisely control when and where bioactive protein signals are presented to cells within materials.”

Since coming to UW, Dr. DeForest has mentored several undergraduate and graduate BioE students and served on numerous BioE Ph.D. thesis committees. Bioengineering students – undergraduate, master’s, Ph.D. and postdocs – currently make up roughly 35 percent of his research lab. He has regularly collaborated on research, publications and grants with a number of BioE faculty.

With his new role in the department, he looks forward to engaging with all of the department faculty and mentoring additional BioE students, as well as developing and teaching courses that will benefit BioE students.

Dr. DeForest has received numerous awards for young investigators, including the Emerging Investigator Award, Royal Society of Chemistry, Biomaterials Science (2019); Early Career Award in Cancer Research, Safeway and the Cancer Consortium (2018); NSF Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award (2017); and the 35 Under 35 Award, Bioengineering Category, from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) (2017), among others.

He has also won teaching awards, including the 2016 Presidential Distinguished Teaching Award, the UW’s highest honor for teaching excellence.

When he’s not teaching or doing research, Dr. DeForest enjoys outdoor activities, and he especially likes to hike, trail run, bike, camp, mountaineer and ski. “Over the last few months, I’ve been spending a good amount of time teaching my daughter how to ski,” he says. “She’s one of very few preschoolers that can ski blues on her own.”

He also commutes to work by running or biking, often with his daughter in a running stroller or pedaling behind on a tow bike.

Dr. DeForest earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Princeton University and a Ph.D. in chemical and biological engineering from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Before joining UW, he was a postdoctoral scholar at the California Institute of Technology.