Pitt | Swanson Engineering

The Department of Bioengineering combines hands-on experience with the solid fundamentals that students need to advance themselves in research, medicine, and industry. The Department has a long-standing and unique relationship with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and other academic departments at the University of Pittsburgh as well as neighboring Carnegie Mellon University. Our faculty are shared with these organizations, offering our graduate and undergraduate students access to state-of-the-art facilities and a wide array of research opportunities. We currently have 187 graduate students who are advised by some 100 different faculty advisers, pursuing graduate research across 17 Departments and five Schools. Our undergraduate class-size of approximately 50 students per year ensures close student-faculty interactions in the classroom and the laboratory.

The main engineering building is located next to the Medical Center in Oakland, an elegant university neighborhood with museums, parks, and great restaurants. Beautiful new facilities have also been built, a short shuttle ride from the main campus, along the Monongahela River, replacing the steel mills that once were there. Our department is growing rapidly, both in numbers of students and faculty, and in the funding and diversity of our research. The Pittsburgh bioengineering community is a vibrant and stimulating alliance of diverse components for which our department forms an essential and central connection.

Sep
24
2020

Catalyzing an Improved Arterial Bypass Graft

Bioengineering

PITTSBURGH (Sept. 24, 2020) … Just as a climbing plant needs the right trellis to thrive, a small-diameter tissue-engineered vascular graft (TEVG) needs the right scaffold to transform seeded cells into a native-like artery that can save a life. A team led by the University of Pittsburgh’s David A. Vorp received a $1.1M award from the National Institutes of Health to optimize this emerging technology for cardiovascular disease. They will examine the best combination(s) of active “payload” and scaffold to develop a feasible alternative to the decades-old practice of using vessels harvested from a patient’s own chest or leg. Coronary heart disease – a worldwide leading cause of death – damages arteries that carry a vital supply of blood, oxygen, and nutrients to the heart. Surgeons typically replace damaged vessels with healthy autologous ones that are harvested from a different part of the patient’s body, but according to Vorp, they are not an ideal substitution. “Autologous vessels are not ideal in that they are limited in number and/or are not naturally designed to function as an artery,” he said. “They have been the gold standard in bypass grafts, but in recent years, companies have begun clinical testing on TEVGs developed in research labs like ours.” Vorp’s team has developed a TEVG based on the well-known regenerative power of mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs), which both prevent blood from clotting on the implanted TEVG and recruit host immune cells that participate in the regeneration process. MSCs are adult stem cells most often derived from a patient’s bone marrow. A successful TEVG will grow and remodel into a native-like artery. It consists of a scaffold that provides a framework for seeded cells, which when given environmental cues, will promote tissue regeneration. In this project, Vorp and his collaborators will examine a variety of successful “payloads” and scaffolds to determine which combinations work best. For the payload, the group will study a cell-based and cell-free approach using both MSCs and – for the cell-free approach – certain immunoregulatory factors that the MSCs secrete. “We believe that the regulatory pathway for a cell-free configuration would be faster if it is shown to be as effective as a cell-based approach,” Vorp said. They will assess each feasible combination of payload and biodegradable scaffold, which will be made from materials in the polyurethane and silk families. “Our previous work has focused on the ability of some of our payload and scaffold combinations to remodel into a successful TEVG when implanted as an aortic replacement graft in rats,” said Vorp, the John A. Swanson Professor of Bioengineering at Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering and member of the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine. “This NIH Catalyze grant will now allow us to more rigorously optimize the grafts in the small animal model to narrow down the number of combinations to be tested in a large animal model.” Finding the best combination(s) of payload and scaffold is only the first step of this project. It is part of a two-phase Catalyze grant from the NIH’s National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, which includes a one-year R61 grant in which the team must achieve the necessary milestones to be eligible to transition to the two-year R33 award. In the second part of the project, the group will use the R33 award to address the manufacturability and other clinical translational aspects of a TEVG, including large animal testing of the best configuration(s). “We will work with ‘accelerator partners,’ including RoosterBio, Inc. and Pitt’s Clinical & Translational Sciences Institute, as well as regulatory consultants to begin addressing manufacturability for clinical translation,” Vorp said. Though there are many advantages to TEVGs, the technology also has its challenges. The researchers hope that finding an optimal configuration will decrease the chance of stenosis, a common complication where the vessel narrows and limits blood flow. The goal of this award is to find a design that can advance to the clinical phase of development and eventually reach the market as a better-quality graft for bypass surgery. # # #

Sep
16
2020

Bioengineering Alumnae Establish Undergraduate Scholarship

Bioengineering, Office of Development & Alumni Affairs

PITTSBURGH (Sept. 16, 2020) … Two bioengineering alumnae from the University of Pittsburgh established a scholarship for students, who like them, are passionate about STEM education. The Stephanie F. Coquia and Angela L. Fu Scholarship in Bioengineering will provide support for tuition and other education-related expenses for a sophomore, junior, or senior student in good academic standing in the Department of Bioengineering at the Swanson School of Engineering. Preference will be given to students who reside in states outside of Pennsylvania and who have demonstrated involvement in extracurricular activities in high school. Drs. Coquia (BS BioE ‘02) and Fu (BS BioE ‘03), who became friends during their time at Pitt, want to acknowledge the program’s impact on their professional lives and provide support for current students to experience the same opportunity. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without the University of Pittsburgh and the Department of Bioengineering, and I wouldn’t have gone to Pitt or gotten a bioengineering degree if I hadn’t received a scholarship,” said Dr. Coquia. “So, this is my way of giving back. I am happy to be sponsoring this scholarship with Angela.” “The one thing that I have enjoyed most after graduating and starting my career is mentoring current students in their post graduation and career choices,” said Dr. Fu. “The scholarship will hopefully assist one student financially so they can focus on the decisions affecting their future.” The pair studied in the department during its nascent years and flourished along with the program. Since its first graduating class in 2000, the number of degrees awarded has tripled from roughly 20 in 2000 to 66 this past spring semester. “I am thankful to Stephanie and Angela for their generosity. It is wonderful to see our former students thrive in their professional careers and want to give back to the department,” said Sanjeev Shroff, distinguished professor and Gerald E. McGinnis Chair of bioengineering. “I am delighted that this scholarship will help provide a Swanson School education to deserving students and contribute to the growing number of successful bioengineering alumni.” # # #

Sep
10
2020

Managing—Not Avoiding—Risks

Covid-19, Bioengineering

PITTSBURGH (Sept. 10, 2020) — When COVID-19 arrived in the U.S., universities were left with a difficult situation. Classes can be moved online, but labs—particularly ones that use living things like animals or cells—could not fully operate remotely or be put on hold easily. Like many institutions, the University of Pittsburgh ramped down its research to continue only the most essential work. Now, as it starts to ramp research back up, the University is helping researchers balance the risks. “After we had been fully ramped-down for several weeks, I had a number of faculty members lamenting this in various ways and degrees,” said David Vorp, associate dean for research at the Swanson School of Engineering and John A. Swanson Professor of Bioengineering. “One in particular expressed that, as engineers and researchers, we are trained to mitigate and manage risk of multiple types, so managing the risk of COVID-19 would be no different and very possible in the lab. It was a valid point.” Vorp serves on the Senior Vice Chancellor for Research’s Associate Deans for Research Council and Co-Chairs the STEM Research Restart Working Group, which are working to safely and effectively ramp up STEM research at Pitt. It took hours of discussion and hundreds of considerations to create a plan for resuming Pitt research, but that was only the beginning. For the most up-to-date information on the status of research at Pitt, visit https://www.svcresearch.pitt.edu/pitt-researchers/research-restart. Considering Every Possibility Shortly after the university ramped down onsite research, Senior Vice Chancellor for Research Rob Rutenbar joined with Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor Ann E. Cudd to analyze what research was continuing. Overall, 80 percent of the faculty was operating at approximately 70 percent of pre-COVID research activity. The researchers at the Swanson School were at 40 percent. To begin planning for an onsite restart, he established seven working groups to create guidelines and processes for the University moving forward in research, education and employee operations. The seven working groups each have their own area of focus: The School of Medicine; Health Sciences; Animal Resources; Logistics; Remote Research; Arts, Humanities Social Sciences and Libraries; and STEM, which includes the Swanson School. Vorp co-led the STEM group with Adam Leibovich, associate dean for faculty recruitment and research development in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences. By the end of April, the STEM Research Restart Working Group began considering all possible factors that would inform the decisions of when and how to restart research in the University’s STEM-based labs. The STEM group consists of 15 faculty members from across disciplines in both the Swanson School and the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences, which allowed them to understand the needs of researchers in different fields. “The STEM Working Group was tremendously vested and worked very hard. There was not a single person who didn’t contribute greatly,” remarked Vorp. Certainly, one of the biggest questions the group had to address, one that would apply to all fields, is also one of the hardest: How do you enable social distancing in a lab, especially when no two labs are exactly the same? “Based on our calculations, in order to ensure people can stay six feet apart, there can only be one person per 150 square feet. That means in a lot of labs, only one or two people will have access at a time,” said Vorp. “We need to ensure that everyone has the access they need to pursue their research – a critical function of a research university – while balancing the risk of COVID-19.” Personal protective equipment, or PPE, is another consideration. Basics, like masks, are now a requirement when working in the lab, and those were procured by the University. However, the STEM group had to make other considerations, as well, such as when a lab already works with hazardous materials and has unique PPE needs. Another consideration is what happens outside of the lab. For example, what about field work? Would researchers be required to drive separately, or wear N95 masks in the car when travelling together to an off-campus location? Other shared spaces, like a lunchroom, are impossible to use without removing masks—what steps can be taken to make sure those spaces are used safely and fairly? Access and Accountability The University’s plan, resources and guidance, based on the latest health and safety recommendations, need to be flexible enough for the array of research situations that exist at Pitt. For that reason, much of the responsibility for approving individual research restarting and establishing safety measures inside the lab rests with the school’s Dean’s office. At the Swanson School, Vorp has been tasked with reviewing and approving COVID-19 mitigation plans for labs and applications to restart. “It has been a major effort and undertaking by my office, but one that we take very, very seriously,” he said. Among the broad requirements for resuming research is a daily attestation questionnaire that people must fill out and sign before coming to campus stating that they are currently healthy and have not been exposed to the virus. Before labs are allowed to resume operations, the principal investigator (PI) must submit a detailed list of all the precautions they would be taking—some of which, like wearing a mask and social distancing, are mandated. Employees and supervisors also complete safety trainings before returning to campus. Signs in Benedum Hall mark the requirements for the building—keeping six feet of distance between people, only allowing four people on the elevators at a time, washing hands frequently and wearing a mask. Inside the labs, however, the PI is responsible for making sure their lab personnel follow the protocols they set up and work safely. “How we do research will fundamentally change because of COVID-19, just like the rest of society,” said Vorp. “But what hasn’t changed is that making sure appropriate safety precautions are taken in the lab is ultimately the responsibility of individual PIs.” Moving Forward in the New Normal The planned reopening of research labs has two phases: the first seeks to begin research operations quickly with reduced personnel, and the second will slowly ramp up to full operations while taking precautions to mitigate the risk of exposure. Researchers like Tamer Ibrahim, whose lab leverages state-of-the-art 7-Telsa MRI technology to study mental health and other neurological diseases, were eager to resume work and find ways to adapt to the new normal. “My group has cleverly reengineered our devices and completely changed the way we do human imaging in order to mitigate the risk of infections and spread of the disease,” said Ibrahim, professor of bioengineering. “Despite significant difficulties, we have been conducting human studies for about two months and have scanned individuals as young as 12 and as old as 85 using our RF coil system. "The resilience of our students, post-docs, and staff is nothing short of extraordinary," he said. As with most things concerning COVID-19, resuming research is a fluid process, one that is subject to change as new challenges are discovered. Vorp notes that one thing that will not change, however, is that the processes and procedures to keep everyone safe only work if everyone honors them. “The changes we need to make to the way we work and live are difficult or at best inconvenient, there’s no denying it. But I’m confident that we’re doing the best we can for the safety of individuals in the labs and our community,” said Vorp. “We have to manage risk, not avoid it, so we can do what the University is supposed to be doing, now more than ever: education, research and public benefit.”

Sep
3
2020

How to Handle a Zombie Outbreak

Covid-19, Bioengineering, Investing Now

In the middle of the Atlantic lies Grimmsport, a fictional island that has identified an outbreak of Zom-B13 which turns the island residents into mindless zombies. This thinly veiled theme for the 2020 Summer with Swanson camp helped teach high school students about the scientific aspects of a pandemic. The University of Pittsburgh’s CampBioE and Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation joined efforts to create a virtual camp that served underrepresented pre-college students in the Swanson School of Engineering’s Investing Now program. The students’ mission was to contain and treat the zombie outbreak, and the first step was to mitigate the spread. “We discussed the importance of a mask and its ability to help filter cleaner air for individuals to breathe,” said Ankith Rao (BioE ‘21). “They learned about human factors in product development and how to create a mask for a universal user. The students then sketched designs and physically prototyped masks with objects from around the house.” With a protective measure in hand, the students then learned how to research reliable information on the outbreak. The camp counselors demonstrated the CRAP test to help students consider four critical areas in identifying a trustworthy source: currency, reliability, authority and purpose. They used these new skills to complete an online scavenger hunt to learn more about vaccines. As part of the overall theme, the students also had to use engineering concepts to solve a series of puzzles that would aid in eliminating the virus. “In one of our modules, the students intercepted an email from zombie island, but they first had to learn how to use ASCII code to translate a clue that was coded in binary notation,” said Lucy Kress (BioE ‘21). One of the other clues included a circuit with a hidden DNA sequence to decode. “Students used software to figure out the protein sequence of the DNA, which was subsequently used to create a 3D model of the protein that served as the antigen for the vaccine,” said Pooja Chawla (BioE ‘22). “They then participated in a detailed virtual lab that demonstrated how vaccines are made.” After gaining a better understanding of how vaccines are developed, the students put their efforts toward creating a way to figure out who is infected. Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technology can rapidly detect viral DNA using primers – short, single-stranded DNA sequences that are specific to the disease. “Any time there is a new virus, you have to be able to identify if a person has been infected,” said Patricia Donehue, a Pitt biological sciences alumna. “We designed primers and introduced the students to PCR and gel electrophoresis as one means of identifying infection. They applied this technique to the clues to discover who may have been exposed to the disease.” The group also used artificial intelligence to set up a classifier that could identify if a face was human or zombie. In this exercise, they demonstrated bias in AI and discussed its implications in modern technology. Finally, the students learned about the pathology of the virus through a series of escape rooms that represented different stages of infection. “Each room had a patient chart with symptoms, and they used a website with a human anatomy model to solve the clues and figure out who was infected,” said Garima Patel (BioE ‘22). In the end, the students successfully created a vaccine, treated the population, and eradicated the zombie outbreak at Grimmsport. While the overall feedback for Summer with Swanson was positive, the counselors encountered a variety of obstacles along the way. Many of the issues involved access to technology and an internet connection. “Some students only had access to phones and tablets while others were limited by website restrictions on their school’s technology,” said Donehue. “Adaptability was an important aspect of this year’s camp. We had to make sure that the students were able to participate in each of the activities, regardless of what technology was available.” The Department of Bioengineering’s CampBioE, like many other programs, had to reframe their curriculum to adapt to coronavirus restrictions. The changes were challenging in many ways, but the solutions also opened new doors. “While the need to do everything virtually created some significant barriers, it also broke down some barriers,” said Steven Abramowitch, associate professor of bioengineering at Pitt and director of CampBioE. “Physical distance was no longer a factor, which allowed us to extend our programming out-of-state and reach audiences that would not have been able to participate otherwise.” The group plans to eventually package their activities on their website so that middle and high school educators across the nation can continue to “inspire tomorrow’s engineers.” # # # This effort was supported by funding from the Wilke Foundation, Phillips, Len and Ann Berenfield, and the Swanson School of Engineering Office of Diversity.

Sep
3
2020

Plexiglass Alone Can't Protect Against Aerosolized Virus

Covid-19, Bioengineering, MEMS, Student Profiles

Reposted from Pittwire. Click here to view the original story. In settings where personal protective equipment (PPE) is in short supply, inserting a breathing tube down a patient’s throat poses a major risk of SARS-CoV-2 exposure for doctors and nurses as viral particles are released into the air. Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh, UPMC and the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Army Research Laboratory created an individual biocontainment unit, or IBU, to keep front line health care workers safe while they provide life-saving care. The device is described in a study published Sept. 3 in the Annals of Emergency Medicine. Authors on the study include Benjamin Schilling, a pre-doctoral fellow in bioengineering at Pitt; Heng Ban, Richard K. Mellon professor of mechanical engineering and materials science in Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering; Robert Turer of Vanderbilt University Medical Center; Nicholas Karlowsky of Filtech; and Lucas Dvoracek, Jason Chang and J. Peter Rubin of UPMC. Earlier attempts to minimize exposure to health care workers involved placing a plexiglass intubation box over a patient’s head and shoulders. Clinicians place their hands through two large holes in the box to intubate the patient inside. While such a device may contain the worst of the splatter, it can’t keep aerosols from leaking out. The IBU is designed to suck contaminated air out of the box with a vacuum and trap infectious particles in a filter before they seep into the room. Simulating a COVID-19 patient, the researchers placed a mannequin inside the IBU as well as in a commercially available intubation box. Near its mouth, they piped in an oil-based aerosol which formed tiny droplets in the air, similar in size to the SARS-CoV-2 particles in breath that spread COVID-19. The IBU trapped more than 99.99% of the simulated virus-sized aerosols and prevented them from escaping into the environment. In contrast, outside of the passive intubation box, maximum aerosol concentrations were observed to be more than three times higher than inside the box. “Having a form of protection that doesn’t work is more dangerous than not having anything, because it could create a false sense of security,” said Turer, the study’s co-lead author and a plastic surgeon who recently completed his residency at UPMC. Because of concerns about the potential of airborne viruses to leak from the plexiglass boxes, the Food and Drug Administration recently revoked their Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for these enclosures. Several months ago, Turer and colleagues submitted an EUA application for the IBU and are preparing to manufacture the devices for distribution. “It intentionally incorporates parts from outside the medical world,” said Turer. “So, unlike other forms of PPE, demand is unlikely to outstrip supply during COVID-19 surge periods.” Besides protecting providers during intubation, the IBU can also provide negative pressure isolation of awake COVID-19 patients, supplying an alternative to scarce negative pressure hospital isolation rooms, as well as helping isolate patients on military vessels. “The ability to isolate COVID-19 patients at the bedside is key to stopping viral spread in medical facilities and onboard military ships and aircraft,” said study co-lead author Cameron Good, a research scientist at the Army Research Laboratory. Devices similar to IBUs were first used in practice by military personnel in the Javits Center field hospital in New York City when local hospitals were overrun with COVID-19 patients during the first wave of the pandemic. Once the EUA is granted, hospitals and military units will be able to use the IBU to protect health care workers caring for COVID-19 patients. Additional authors on the study include Benjamin Schilling and Heng Ban of the University of Pittsburgh; Robert Turer of Vanderbilt University Medical Center; Nicholas Karlowsky of Filtech; and Lucas Dvoracek, Jason Chang and J. Peter Rubin of UPMC. This work is supported by the University of Pittsburgh Center for Medical Innovation.

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