can repair injured arms and reptiles can regrow severed tails; from bacteria to
humans, every species is capable of regeneration, albeit to variable extents.
These functions help make species more resilient, but how can we apply the
knowledge of these regenerative mechanisms to improve human health? The
University of Pittsburgh Department of Bioengineering has been collaboratively
working to address this question through research efforts in tissue engineering
and regenerative medicine.
In 1981, upon the arrival of Dr. Thomas E.
Starzl at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Pittsburgh quickly
became world-renowned in transplantation. This helped put Pittsburgh on the map
in the medical community, eventually leading to increased interest in
artificial organs and the establishment of the McGowan Center for Artificial
Organ Development in 1992. This Center, which later became the McGowan
Institute for Regenerative Medicine, continues to flourish and develop
therapies that reestablish tissue and organ function impaired by disease,
trauma, or congenital abnormalities.
The McGowan Institute of Regenerative Medicine
(MIRM) received its current title in 2001 when the Center's mission was
expanded to include tissue engineering, adult-derived stem cell and wound
healing research, and several other areas of investigation. “We could have
carried on with medical device and artificial organ research, but we recognized
that we wanted to address the problem – organ and tissue failure – and begin to
develop a wider range of technologies,” said William R. Wagner, PhD, director
of MIRM and professor of surgery at Pitt.
Dr. Wagner, who joined the University in 1991,
saw his own research begin to evolve beyond artificial organs. He studied blood
coagulation from an engineering perspective, which turned out to be useful in
understanding why artificial hearts were forming blood clots, but he later
wanted to move beyond artificial hearts and look at ways to make tissue for
cardiac repair. His research group currently focuses on developing
cardiovascular technologies, with projects that address medical device
biocompatibility and design, hypothesis-driven biomaterials development, tissue
engineering, and targeted imaging.
Dr. Wagner believes that advancements in
regenerative medicine require a collaborative effort in which bioengineering
plays a large role. “An interdisciplinary approach is what makes the McGowan
Institute thrive,” he said. “The problem we are trying to solve is what happens
when a part of the body is no longer working. A clinical viewpoint is
necessary, but medical training doesn’t give you an engineer’s perspective of
design and manufacturing. You need a solid foot in both camps to make
This approach is well-suited for the
University of Pittsburgh, which ranked fourth among U.S. universities in
funding by the National Institutes of Health in FY 2018. These research
opportunities are complemented by the world-renowned University of Pittsburgh
Medical Center, which has helped to create a collaborative environment
conducive to productive medical research.
“Institutes are created to bring people from
different disciplines together to solve a common problem, and that is exactly
what we are doing at the McGowan Institute,” said Dr. Wagner. “If you look in
our laboratories, you could find a nursing professor, a pathology professor, a
cardiac surgeon, or a bioengineer – it is a very diverse population. We have a
wide range of research, and this center allows these collaborations to be built
Among this wide range of researchers are 16 primary
bioengineering faculty. From the design and development of novel artificial
lung devices to the creation of an injectable gel technology that helps injured
peripheral nerves repair and regenerate, bioengineering faculty have made an
impact on biomedical translational research and innovation at Pitt.
“I think we are at a very exciting point where
the commercialization of a lot of our inventions is not only possible but
practical,” said Wagner. “Our ideas and the technology we have developed are
more mature, and the investment community has a better idea of what we are
trying to do.”
The translational research efforts at MIRM
have led to 30 spinout companies derived from MIRM-affiliated faculty.
Bioengineering has contributed to the success of these efforts by offering the Center
for Medical Innovation, which provides early-stage seed grants to
projects, and the Coulter Translational Research Partners II Program,
which provides funding and helps lead the projects to commercialization.
Beyond research, education is another priority
of the McGowan Institute. Part of their mission is to educate and train
scientists and engineers to pursue technologies related to regenerative
medicine and train a generation of clinicians in the implementation of
regenerative therapies. Bioengineering makes up a large part of MIRM graduate
student population, which also includes surgical fellows and residents.
MIRM-associated faculty currently participate
in three NIH training grants to support the educational efforts: the
Biomechanics in Regenerative Medicine (BiRM) program, the Cardiovascular
Bioengineering Training Program (CBTP), and the Cellular Approaches to Tissue
Engineering and Regeneration (CATER) program. In addition, MIRM serves local,
national, and international undergraduate students through the Regenerative Medicine Summer School, a hands-on
experiential learning program launched by Bioengineering Assistant Professor
Bryan Brown, which aims to recruit students from underrepresented backgrounds,
including those at universities without significant bioengineering and/or
regenerative medicine programs. This educational program nicely complements the
CampBioE effort by the
Department of Bioengineering, which is a tissue engineering summer camp for
middle and high school students.
“I consider MIRM to be a scaffold that brings
together individuals interested in tissue engineering and regenerative medicine
and facilitates their interactions,” said Sanjeev Shroff, Distinguished
Professor and Gerald E. McGinnis Chair of Bioengineering. “The symbiotic
relationship between MIRM and the Department of Bioengineering greatly benefits
our students and faculty, offering outstanding opportunities for training and
All of these efforts have led the McGowan
Institute of Regenerative Medicine to be one of the most prominent institutes
of its kind. As this dynamic field evolves and grows, the Department of
Bioengineering will continue to contribute to the diverse group of researchers
at MIRM who pursue the development of innovative technology and new therapies
for patients in need.
Contact: Leah Russell