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Center's vision to create future of medicine

A veteran benefits from a treatment that regenerates brain tissue from his own cells that allows his brain to repair itself. A baby with an irregular heart rhythm receives bionic pacemaker cells, cultured from her own body, that allow her heart to settle into a normal rhythm so that she won't need medications or devices to live a normal life. A breast cancer survivor goes to her oncologist who uses fluoroscopic images to track down any remaining tumors she might have.

If you think these three stories sound like science fiction, you're only half right.

They're based on just a few of the scientific advances that are rapidly evolving toward useful therapeutic practices thanks to the collaborative work of bioengineering teams in the Clyburn Research Center.

Supporting researchers from Clemson University, the University of South Carolina and MUSC, the Bioengineering Building has the potential to become one of the nation's most productive centers for the development of biologically useful materials, devices and systems, guiding the process from discovery to practical solutions for some of the most pressing health concerns.

"Bioengineering applies principles and methods from the physical and engineering sciences to the life sciences to enable understanding of disease processes and to improve medical care," said Richard Swaja, Ph.D., director of the South Carolina Bioengineering Alliance.

"Our labs use concepts from physics, chemistry, computer science, mechanical and electrical engineering, cellular and molecular biology and other fields to create practical ways to regenerate body tissues, correct problems before symptoms are observed and make diagnostic technologies more efficient."

Bioengineering brings together different scientific disciplines to provide collaborative approaches for addressing problems in biology and medicine. Research teams typically include members with widely different areas of expertise — practicing clinicians, biomaterials specialists, chemists, computer scientists and geneticists. They study health problems that defy single disciplinary solutions, and they use their combined power to find and test novel approaches that cross scientific boundaries.

Sarah Haviland, Ph.D.(c), and Dr. Lars Cleemann work in the lab of Dr. Martin Morad.

"By working across disciplines, we can develop technologies that are not only unique but also have broader impact than initially considered," explained Swaja. "For example, while we were testing a method to locate cancer cells, we discovered that the technique could also be used to destroy them."

Leading several of these applied-research efforts in the Bioengineering Building is Xuejun Wen, M.D., Ph.D., Hansjörg Wyss Endowed Chair Professor, who holds faculty appointments at both Clemson and MUSC. After being recruited to Clemson in 2003 from the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Wen assembled research teams that are pursuing dozens of different clinical uses for bioengineered materials, ranging from gels that re-grow tissues inside the body to bioreactors that allow researchers to streamline their studies by culturing hard-to-grow cells in the laboratory.

"Our labs have bioengineers and graduate students from Clemson working alongside basic scientists and clinicians from MUSC," he said. "That cross-fertilization is what helps compress the discovery timeline and moves us toward practical applications for our technologies."

This targeted approach has led to ongoing projects to fight diabetes, skeletal degeneration, pulmonary problems and neural pathologies stemming from acute injury or chronic progressions like Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease.

Promising areas his team will explore include:
The development of a variety of biocompatible polymers — materials with biomechanical and biochemical properties to support cell-growth and appropriate differentiation that can be used by researchers here and elsewhere to explore new modes of tissue engineering to counter organ and tissue damage.
The engineering of biocompatible hydrogels that mimic specific body tissues to form a foundation for different tissue regeneration.

The use of nanoparticles — a million of them could rest on the head of a pin — that can be tagged with bioactive molecules to glow in the presence of fluoroscopy so they can do such tasks as pinpointing malignant cells and possibly eliminating them.

To choose the most worthwhile avenues for research projects, Wen and his colleagues put each new idea to a simple test. Drawing on their combined expertise in engineering and medical science, they evaluate each project by asking two questions.

"The first thing we ask ourselves is if our idea is different. If our research tells us it is, then we ask, 'Is it better than what's available now?'" said Wen.

Teaching the heart to beat
Using modified cells to study and correct cardiac problems is the focus of another bioengineering researcher at the Clyburn center, Martin Morad, Ph.D., BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina Foundation Endowed Chair in Cardiovascular Health. He directs the work of teams in his Cardiac Signaling Center, a group collaborating with scientists from MUSC's other high-profile cardiac research efforts to develop new therapies that address heart problems involving electrical, rhythmic and muscular disturbances.

"Rhythm problems are very common and sometimes life-threatening," he said. "Implantable pacemakers have been used for generations to make damaged hearts function more efficiently, but that means living with wires, batteries, uncertainty — things that can make life difficult. A big part of our research is doing roughly the same thing, but on a cellular level that delivers a life-long fix."

Instead of implanting a device that paces the heart with electrical pulses, his researchers are working to correct the heart's own signaling network. It all starts with adult stem cells, the most basic part of the body's system for repairing and replacing aged or damaged tissues. After harvesting cells from the patient's bone marrow and other sources, Morad's molecular biology teams induce them to take on new functions or characteristics, including training them to become functioning heart cells.

"You can actually see the ones that become cardiac cells because they start to beat," said Morad. "When you combine them, they teach themselves to beat in unison. We see them do the same thing when they come in contact with cells in the heart muscle."

Researcher in Dr.
                                          Wen's lab.Van Tran, Ph.D.(c), right, does research in Dr. Xuejun Wen's stem cell laboratory in the Bioengineering Building.

Since the cardiac cells are developed from a patient's own cells, they can be introduced into the heart without the kind of rejection problems seen in cellular transplants from other sources. Experimental models have already shown that this technique can correct rhythm disturbances that cause the heart muscle to beat irregularly or too weakly.
As dramatic as the discoveries may seem, the therapeutic benefits may be just the tip of a research iceberg. Creating viable cardiac cells for study outside the body may prove even more useful in efforts to understand how signaling mechanisms within cells go wrong — and how they can be modified to improve cardiac functioning in patients from infants to adults.

Fostering Partnerships
Frank Treiber, Ph.D., South Carolina SmartState Endowed Research Chair, said he's excited to see how the Clyburn Research Center will impact the state's latest Center of Economic Excellence, the Technology Applications Center for Healthful Lifestyles (TACHL).

The TACHL, a partnership involving MUSC, the University of South Carolina and Clemson, will develop, evaluate and commercialize technology for individuals, worksites, community groups and health care provider networks. The goal is to foster disease prevention and health care management.

A recent collaboration involving MUSC, Clemson and a local software application company, Reaction Apps, resulted in a smart phone-delivered stress reduction program. This program includes real time monitoring of heart rate with immediate feedback charts following each meditation session and motivational messages to help sustain the practice over time.

Products will include software and information systems for mobile smart phones, iPad tablet technologies and other methods, all of which will help implement lifestyle programs and medical regimens, and monitor related behavioral or biological functions.

Another group excited to have the bioengineering teams nearby are fellow researchers in MUSC's Center for Rehabilitation Research in Neurological Conditions within the College of Health Professions. The center's co-director, Steve Kautz, Ph.D., said his group pursues cutting-edge research in neurorehabilitation and has three bioengineers on faculty. Having the Bioengineering Building just across the street from their primary laboratories moves them closer to the goal of placing MUSC at the leading edge of neurorehabilitation research.

Swaja said the research center's infrastructure is designed for the way collaborative research will happen in this century. "It is hard to overstate what a difference that makes as we work to grow our scientific community. We expect that the groundbreaking research to come from the investigators in the center who will provide a rich source for translation into clinical interventions for rehabilitation."



Friday, Oct. 28, 2011

The Catalyst Online is published weekly by the MUSC Office of Public Relations for the faculty, employees and students of the Medical University of South Carolina. The Catalyst Online editor, Kim Draughn, can be reached at 792-4107 or by email, Editorial copy can be submitted to The Catalyst Online and to The Catalyst in print by fax, 792-6723, or by email to To place an ad in The Catalyst hardcopy, call Island Publications at 849-1778, ext. 201.