Goal is personalized heart tissue for clinical use
By Barbara Moran, BU Research
Boston University has won a $20 million, five-year award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to create a multi-institution Engineering Research Center (ERC), with the goal of synthesizing personalized heart tissue for clinical use. The grant, which is renewable for a total of 10 years and $40 million, is designed to accelerate an area of engineering research—in this case, bioengineering functional heart tissue—that is likely to spur societal change and economic growth within a decade.
“The goal is moving from the basic research capability to a technology that could be disruptive,” says Kenneth Lutchen, dean of the College of Engineering and a professor of biomedical engineering, who notes that the ERC program is designed to stimulate translation of research to practice by facilitating worldwide corporate, clinical, and institutional partnerships. “The center will transform cardiovascular care by synthesizing breakthroughs in nanotechnology and manufacturing with tissue engineering and regenerative medicine,” he says.
ERC grants are extremely competitive. Of more than 200 applicants, only 4—Boston University, Purdue University, the Georgia Institute of Technology, and Texas A&M University—received awards in 2017. “The awarding of the NSF ERC is outstanding recognition of the quality and creativity of our faculty team from across the College of Engineering,” says Robert A. Brown, president of BU. “Their efforts will help make the creation of personalized human tissue for cardiac applications a reality.”
The Engineering Research Center will be housed at Boston University, the lead institution on the grant. The award hits a “sweet spot” at the intersection of BU’s strengths in biomedical engineering, photonics, and nanotechnology, says Lutchen. David Bishop, an ENG professor of electrical and computer engineering, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of physics, and head of ENG’s Division of Materials Science & Engineering, will direct the center. Working with him will be four leaders in specific areas—or “thrusts”—of technical expertise: Thomas Bifano, an ENG professor of mechanical engineering and materials science & engineering, and director of the Photonics Center, will direct imaging; Alice White, an ENG professor and chair of the mechanical engineering department, and professor of materials science & engineering, will direct nanomechanics; Christopher Chen, an ENG professor of biomedical engineering and materials science & engineering, will direct cellular engineering; and Stephen Forrest, a University of Michigan professor of materials science & engineering, will direct nanotechnology. Arvind Agarwal, a Florida International University (FIU) professor of mechanical and materials engineering, will work with White’s team to advance nanomechanics methods, and will also lead FIU’s involvement in the ERC, with a crucial role in education and outreach.
The ERC will also develop areas of expertise in education, diversity, administration, and outreach. Helen Fawcett, an ENG research assistant professor of mechanical engineering, will lead the diversity team. Stormy Attaway (GRS’84,’88), an ENG assistant professor of mechanical engineering, will colead the workforce development and education team with Sarah Hokanson (CAS’05), Professional Development & Postdoctoral Affairs program director. The administration team will be led by Robert Schaejbe, Photonics Center assistant director of operations and financial administration. Thomas Dudley, Photonics Center assistant director of technical programs, will lead the Innovation Ecosystem team, a group of companies and research consortia that will serve as advisors and work with the ERC to commercialize the technologies it creates.
Two partner institutions—the University of Michigan and Florida International University—as well as six affiliate institutions—Harvard Medical School, Columbia University, the Wyss Institute at Harvard, Argonne National Laboratory, the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, and the Centro Atómico Bariloche/Instituto Balseiro in Argentina—will offer additional expertise in bioengineering, nanotechnology, and other areas.
“We have assembled a very competitive team from world-class institutions with a compelling vision,” says Bishop, noting that the grant is designed to move research from the lab into industry, while also creating education, job training, and employment opportunities. “This grant gives us the opportunity to define a societal problem, and then create the industry to solve it. Heart disease is one of the biggest problems we face. This may allow us to solve it, not make incremental progress.”
Heart disease—including coronary heart disease, hypertension, and stroke—is the leading cause of death in the United States, according to the American Heart Association. About 790,000 people in the United States have heart attacks each year, about one every 40 seconds. Of those, about 114,000 will die. Statistics like these, and the fact that cardiovascular disease is relatively advanced in terms of regenerative medicine, led the team to target heart disease in their ERC proposal.
Scientists and engineers have been struggling to build or grow artificial organs for decades. But aside from simple, nonmoving parts, like artificial windpipes, the field has not lived up to its early promise. This is partly because organs, with their multiple cell types, have proved difficult to synthesize, and also because researchers have learned that the body’s dynamic stresses—beating hearts, stretching lungs—play a larger role in how tissues grow and perform than originally thought.
The ERC plans to accomplish four goals with the cellular metamaterials it intends to build: fabricate responsive heart tissue containing muscle cells and blood vessels; understand and control the tissue using optical technologies; scale the process up to easily create multiple copies of the tissue; and personalize the product, so it can be tailored to individual patients. The first goal will be to create “functionalized heart tissue on a chip,” says Lutchen, tissue that could be built with a specific patient’s cells and used to test new drugs and therapies. The ultimate goal is to fabricate heart tissue that could replace diseased or damaged muscle after a heart attack.
“It’s humbling to have the opportunity to work on something that could really be a game changer,” says Bishop. “If we succeed, we’ll save a lot of lives and add meaningful years for many people.”
This story originally appeared on BU Today.