BU Joins Federal Effort to Engineer Human Tissue: New national institute will develop innovative, life-saving industry

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Imagine this: a new factory opens in the United States after years of dwindling manufacturing jobs. Unlike the great factories of the 20th century, this one manufactures skin tissue for soldiers grievously scarred by war and for civilians, and develops organ-preserving technologies that eliminate waiting lists for eligible transplant recipients.

Now imagine an industry with many such factories devoted to tissue fabrication, and the jobs it would spawn.

The US Defense Department has funded a nationwide consortium to create the Advanced Tissue Biofabrication Manufacturing USA Institute (ATB). The 87 government, industry, and academic partners, among them BU, collectively known as the Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute (ARMI), were awarded the ATB to further new ways of using living cells to construct tissues and organs. The ATB, to be housed in Manchester, N.H., is part of an initiative to bolster the nation’s manufacturing sector and is backed by $80 million in federal funding and $214 million from its member partners.

“This is in the sweet spot of Boston University,” says Kenneth Lutchen, dean of the College of Engineering. “It leverages the University’s strengths in engineering, particularly photonics and optics, nanomanufacturing and tissue regeneration, and biological design. These areas engage faculty from the physical and life sciences in the College of Arts & Sciences, from throughout the College of Engineering, and from the School of Medicine.” The ARMI’s goal, he says, is “to accelerate the innovation ecosystem in each area and drive the creation of new products, new companies, new jobs…that otherwise may not have occurred.”

“The promise…is mind-boggling,” says David Bishop, an ENG professor of electrical and computer engineering and head of the Materials Science & Engineering division, who will coordinate BU’s involvement. When it opens later this spring, ARMI will solicit research proposals from its members and fund those it deems promising. BU has not yet proposed or won funding for specific projects.

But as part of its bid to join the partnership, BU showed the government several examples of its relevant research, including work by Thomas Bifano, an ENG professor of mechanical engineering and materials science & engineering and director of BU’s Photonics Center. He uses high-resolution imaging, which would allow a look deep inside tissue, Bishop says.

Other relevant researchers include Christopher Chen, an ENG professor of biomedical engineering and materials science & engineering, and a world-renowned expert in regenerative medicine, and Xue Han, an ENG assistant professor of biomedical engineering, whose expertise is optogenics, the use of light to reengineer nerve cells.

Bishop says ARMI hopes to develop many technologies and find new ways to train STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) students, who would be the workers needed in any tissue fabrication industry. “It’s about diverse workforce development and education,” he says. “It’s not just to write papers or develop products.”

But “trying to create manufacturing technology for the 21st century,” as he puts it, presents big hurdles.

“Unlike any other product you can conceive of, this one’s alive,” Lutchen says. “You can’t just ship it and have it on the shelf at Wal-Mart.…You have to have a system in place, which is just-in-time delivery.”

If ARMI succeeds, Bishop says, it could usher in a new era in manufacturing for the country: “Rather than browbeat someone to keep a factory that builds automobile springs here, how about we own tissue engineering,” he says. “We’re part of a group of the best institutions in the world to try to get together and say, can we do it? If so, how can we do it?”