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 BU College of Engineering Dean Kenneth Lutchen, 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.
Engineering Research Center grants are extremely competitive. Of more than 200 applicants, only four—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 Boston University President Robert A. Brown. “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, who is also a professor of biomedical engineering. David Bishop, BU professor of electrical and computer engineering, and physics, and head of the Division of Materials Science & Engineering, will direct the center, working with four leaders in specific areas—or “thrusts”—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, will direct cellular engineering; and Stephen Forrest, professor of materials science and engineering at the University of Michigan, will direct nanotechnology. Arvind Agarwal, professor of mechanical and materials engineering at Florida International University (FIU), will work with White’s team to advance nanomechanics methods, and 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, BU research assistant professor in mechanical engineering, will lead the diversity team. Stormy Attaway, BU assistant professor in mechanical engineering, will co-lead the workforce development and education team with Sarah Hokanson. The administration team will be led by Robert Schaejbe, assistant director of operations and financial administration at the Photonics Center. Thomas Dudley, assistant director of technical programs at the Photonics Center, will lead the Innovation Ecosystem team, a group of companies and research consortia that will serve as advisors and work with the center 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, who notes 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,” he adds. “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 US have heart attacks each year, about one every forty 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, non-moving 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.”