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$20M NSF grant creates an engineering research center

A change of heart

David Bishop, Alice White, Christopher Chen & Thomas Bifano profile photos
David Bishop
Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the College of Engineering
Alice White
Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the College of Engineering
Christopher Chen
Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the College of Engineering
Thomas Bifano
Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the College of Engineering

Imagine a future where you can use your own cells to repair or replace heart tissue damaged by a heart attack.

Well, thanks to a $20 million National Science Foundation grant, BU scientists and engineers have the chance to make that future a reality. The award has created a multi-institution engineering research center (ERC) on campus to develop personalized, synthetic heart tissue that could replace diseased or compromised muscle—a game changer for patients suffering from coronary ailments.

The five-year grant, renewable for a total of 10 years and up to $40 million, is intended to advance an area of engineering research likely to spur societal change and economic growth within a decade. The ultimate aim of the Engineering Research Center in Cellular Metamaterials (CELL-MET) is to accelerate nano-biomanufacturing methods that could lead to large-scale fabrication of functional heart tissue, built with specific patients’ cells, for clinical use.

“This grant gives us the opportunity to define a societal problem, and then create the industry to solve it.”

The extremely competitive award lands squarely at the intersection of BU’s strengths in biomedical engineering, photonics, and nanotechnology. David Bishop, BU professor of electrical and computer engineering and physics, and head of the Division of Materials Science & Engineering, directs the center, collaborating with four leaders in specific areas of technical expertise: Thomas Bifano, professor of mechanical engineering and director of BU’s Photonics Center, will direct imaging; Alice White, chair of the mechanical engineering department, will direct nanomechanics; Christopher Chen, professor of biomedical engineering and director of BU’s Biological Design Center, will direct cellular engineering; and Stephen Forrest, professor of materials science and engineering at the University of Michigan, will direct nanotechnology. Two partner institutions—the University of Michigan and Florida International University—will offer additional expertise in bioengineering, nanotechnology, and other areas.

“This grant gives us the opportunity to define a societal problem, and then create the industry to solve it,” Bishop says. “Heart disease is one of the biggest problems we face. This may allow us to solve it, not make incremental progress.”

A Cardiac Patch

Strategy for a Solution

Illustration courtesy of Jeroen Eyckmans

Illustration courtesy of Jeroen Eyckmans

  1. Fabricate responsive heart tissue containing muscle cells and blood vessels
  2. Understand and control the tissue using optical technologies
  3. Scale the process up to easily create multiple copies of the tissue
  4. Personalize the product, so it can be tailored to individual patients