UofM’s Dr. Aaryani Tipirneni-Sajja awarded $589,413 Trailblazer Award from National Institutes of Health 

April 29, 2021  – Dr. Aaryani Tipirneni-Sajja, assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering in the Herff College of Engineering, was recently awarded a two-year $589,413 Trailblazer Award from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) for her project titled, “Modeling MRI-based tissue relaxation in the presence of iron overload and steatosis.” 

Tipirneni-Sajja will serve as Principal Investigator (PI) on the project in collaboration with: 

  • Dr. Eddie Jacobs, professor, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Memphis
  • Dr. Cara Morin, Department of Diagnostic Imaging, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital
  • Dr. Sanjaya Satapathy, Medical Director, Liver Transplantation and professor, Northshore University Hospital/Northwell Health

“The overall goal of this research is to model and understand magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) signal decay in the presence of iron and fat and determine an accurate signal model so as to establish MRI as a non-invasive replacement to liver biopsy for simultaneous assessment of iron overload and steatosis,” said Tipirneni-Sajja. 

Iron overload is an excessive accumulation of iron in the body, affecting about 16 million people in the United States. Iron overload can either be inherited (hemochromatosis) or acquired through chronic blood transfusions (e.g., for sickle cell, β-thalassemia, cancer therapy) and can cause serious damage to the liver, heart and pancreas if not treated. Steatosis, the abnormal retention of fat in the liver, affects 20-30% of the US population and is linked with obesity, insulin resistance and metabolic syndromes. Both iron overload and steatosis can occur simultaneously as in diffuse liver diseases and accelerate progression to fibrosis, cirrhosis and ultimately liver failure. As iron overload and steatosis are reversible conditions, techniques that can provide early diagnosis and guide treatment are crucial to reducing morbidity and mortality. 

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is currently used as a non-invasive alternative to a biopsy to assess liver-related iron overload and steatosis, independently. In co-existing conditions, however, MRI quantification is often inaccurate due to the use of inferior signal models that do not correctly account  for the confounding effects of in vivo iron and fat particles on MRI signal, thus an invasive biopsy is required for assessment. 

“In this research, we will construct realistic tissue models using simulations and phantom experiments to evaluate the contribution of size and distribution of iron and fat deposits on MRI signal,” said Tipirneni-Sajja. “This research will aid our understanding and quantification of iron and fat mediated MRI signal relaxation in tissues and therefore will help us to develop and validate accurate signal models that can simultaneously quantify iron overload and steatosis in patients.”  

Dr. Joel Bumgardner, chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering in the Herff College of Engineering, said, “This highly innovative and impactful research will lead to the effective early diagnosis of and close monitoring of treatment strategies, non-invasively, to treat and prevent the progression of devastating liver disease and its complications.” 

About the NIBIB Trailblazer Award   

This Trailblazer Award is an opportunity for National Institutes of Health (NIH)-defined New and Early Stage Investigators to pursue research programs of high interest to the NIBIB that integrate engineering and the physical sciences with the life and/or biomedical sciences. The mission of the NIBIB within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is to improve health by leading the development and accelerating the application of biomedical technologies.