Major Biotech Firm Gives UC Engineers
Half-Million Dollars for Innovative Tendon Repair Research

Feb. 3, 1998
Contact for photos or information: Chris Curran
(513) 556-1806 (O)

Cincinnati -- A collaboration between University of Cincinnati engineering faculty and a Baltimore biotechnology company has led to the establishment of a new biomedical engineering laboratory in the UC College of Engineering.

The company, Osiris Therapeutics Inc., was identified by USA Today as one of the leaders in stem cell therapy, that is the use of a patient's own cells to regrow damaged tendons and ligaments. Last year, Osiris and a UC research team led by Professor David Butler won a $750,000 National Institutes of Health grant to study the use of mesenchymal stem cells (MSC) following tendon injuries.

The collaboration was so successful, Osiris decided to donate $500,000 to the College of Engineering for tendon research and to establish the Osiris Cell Culture Laboratory for Regenerative Tissue Therapy. The work yielded promising results that suggest ways to provide faster, fuller recovery from debilitating tendon injuries, like the one suffered by President Bill Clinton last year.

"As the relationship has grown, it's become obvious that together we could be far more effective if we took a more major role," said Professor Butler. "So, Osiris decided to outfit a cell culture laboratory and pay to hire a full-time cell culture expert here in the College of Engineering who would direct that lab and make implants for the experiments we wanted to perform."

The implants are the crucial part of using stem cells. The researchers discovered that MSC implants improved tendon strength by 30 percent after injury. However, when the implants were pretensioned before surgery, the repairs were 100 percent stronger four weeks after surgery, compared with tendons left to heal naturally.

The new cell culture lab will allow UC researchers to focus on the use of stem cell implants to treat patellar tendon injuries while Osiris researchers focus on the Achilles tendon.

The UC research team includes Greg Boivin, assistant professor of comparative pathology and veterinary surgeon; doctoral student Hani Awad; cell culture expert Tara Riddle, who will oversee the new laboratory; graduate student Ying Wu; Wade Weber, an engineering co-op student; and undergraduate Matt Harris who will conduct parallel in vitro studies on the implants.

They will be joined by Stevin Gehrke, an associate professor of chemical engineering who specializes in hydrogels. The implant we're dealing with consists of cells which are suspended in a collagen gel," explained Butler. "What we will do is explore some different kinds of gels that might be used in place of collagen and what we might be able to do to the gels to make them more effective as a scaffold for the cells."

The idea sounds simple, but engineers and doctors are struggling to come up with the best new materials for the job. One reason is, the job of the scaffold changes. "Initially, they need to support most of the load on the tissue, but they need to gradually go away," said Gehrke. "So when the new tissue is generated, the matrix is replaced."

The material must also be able to respond to the cells. Biomedical researchers know that cells respond to stress and must align themselves in a particular way to grow properly. So, the scaffold material can't be completely rigid and unmoving. Finally, the materials must be bio-compatible. That's one of the toughest demands of all. "Your body's immune system is like the sentry who's always asking for the password. You need a material the body recognizes as a 'friendly' material," said Gehrke. "If it sees something that doesn't belong in there, the body has all sorts of mechanisms to get rid of it."

The collaboration could lead to a number of new uses for MSC implants, including the regeneration of damaged or diseased bone, cartilage and muscle. Findings from the work will be presented later this winter at the Orthopaedic Research Society meeting in New Orleans, as well as a special NIH symposium on biomedical engineering.

The project began with a Biomedical Engineering Seed Grant awarded in 1993, a funding initiative between the College of Medicine and the College of Engineering to stimulate new collaborations between the two colleges.

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