For a wounded soldier on the battlefield, the ability to stop bleeding then and there is a matter of life and death.

University of Utah bioengineering assistant professor, Tara Deans, is using a new field called “synthetic biology” to give those soldiers, as well as anyone who suffers massive trauma, the edge they need to survive.

Deans is the latest University of Utah College of Engineering recipient of the National Science Foundation’s Career Award, a prestigious grant that will give her the backing to pursue her research in manipulating adult stem cells to control the production of blood platelets and red blood cells, key elements in helping blood clot after a serious wound. The five-year grant is for more than $500,000.

“It’s really awesome,” she said about news of the grant. “I’m very relieved and also really proud. It’s a team effort. I have amazing students, and they’re a part of it too.”

The core of Deans’ research involves synthetic biology, the science of designing and building new biological components and systems. With synthetic biology, she is trying to understand ways to genetically alter cells so they can perform certain functions inside and outside of the body, such as regenerating tissue or recording the development of a disease. For example, she is also researching how she can manipulate certain cells to help her understand the progression of multiple sclerosis in the brain.

With the NSF grant, she will learn how adult stem cells naturally make choices to become red blood cells and platelets. Understanding how cells do this will allow scientists to control the production of red blood cells and platelets to be made in a lab for use in patients. The benefit is that doctors won’t have to rely on the availability of live donors to provide blood platelets or red blood cells for victims of accidents or battle injuries.

“There are a lot of diseases where people don’t make enough red blood cells or platelets,” Deans explained. “So this is about understanding the mechanisms of these cell choices. Once we understand that, then we can use approaches in synthetic biology to control the various signals responsible for cells becoming red blood cells and platelets. This is an important first step in understanding how we can produce these cells for healing injuries and diseases in the human body.”

Deans is the first recipient of the NSF Career Award this year from the U’s College of Engineering. Other past recipients from the College include School of Computing assistant professor Mariah Meyer, electrical and computer engineering assistant professor Berardi Sensale-Rodriguez and electrical and computer engineering associate professor Jamesina Simpson.