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Biodegradable Implantable Medical Devices Might Be Possible Thanks to $18 Million NSF Grant to Multi-University Consortium


UC joins with North Carolina A&T and the University of Pittsburgh to create medical devices that can adapt to a patient’s anatomy and dissolve when no longer needed.

Date: 9/4/2008 12:00:00 AM
By: Wendy Beckman
Phone: (513) 556-1826

UC ingot   North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (NCAT) will lead the research in partnership with the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt) and the University of Cincinnati (UC). The consortium will create orthopedic, craniofacial and cardiovascular devices for adults and children that adapt to a patient’s anatomy and dissolve when no longer needed.

NCAT's Edward Fort Interdisciplinary Research Center, which is where the ERC office will be located.
NCAT's Edward Fort Interdisciplinary Research Center, which is where the ERC office will be located. (Photo courtesy of NCAT)

Funding for the project comes from a five-year, $18.5 million grant announced Sept. 4 to develop implantable devices made from biodegradable metals. The project stems from a five-year Engineering Research Center (ERC) grant that NCAT received from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in collaboration with Pitt and UC. The highly competitive ERC grants support large-scale university and industry collaborations on pioneering technologies considered important to future generations.

“Biosensor technology paired with advances in nanotechnology are a research strength at UC,” said Sandra Degen, UC’s vice president of research. “We are proud to be part of this collaboration with NCAT and Pitt to design devices using some of the technology developed at UC.”

Five grants were awarded in 2008 from 143 applicants. Only 29 universities in the past 25 years have received an ERC. NCAT is the first Historically Black College and University (HCBU) to become an ERC. The NSF’s ERC program is intended to focus on combining fundamental research with research and education emphasizing innovation and entrepreneurship. The education program will be strategically planned to develop graduates who are experienced in the creative process and cross-cultural collaboration and who are able to define pathways to explore and realize innovation opportunities to prepare them for success in a global economy.

"The teaming between North Carolina A&T and the University of Pittsburgh with UC offers a unique consortium that focuses on UC’s expertise in sensor technology, Pitt’s in biomedical engineering and NCAT’s in materials engineering,” said Carlo Montemagno, dean of UC’s College of Engineering. “Furthermore, this consortium has deep roots in the shared belief of offering the best educational opportunities and best resources available to our students. It is a central trust placed upon public universities to not only develop new technologies but also help our students in launching new careers in engineering, science and medicine.”

This carbon nanotube array was grown to represent UC's strategic plan for the 21st century.
This carbon nanotube array was grown to represent UC's strategic plan for the 21st century.

Serving as project director is Jagannathan Sankar, NCAT’s Distinguished University professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Center for Advanced Materials and Smart Structures. UC Professor Mark Schulz, co-director of the UC Nanoworld and Smart Materials and Devices Laboratories, will serve as the ERC deputy director along with Pitt’s William Wagner, deputy director of the university’s McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine (MIRM) and professor of surgery, bioengineering and chemical engineering.

To coincide with the grant project, NCAT will establish the first bioengineering department at an HCBU with the assistance of faculty members in the Department of Bioengineering in Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering, MIRM and at UC. The department will offer bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees.

The ERC project will focus primarily on producing three technologies: biodegradable and self-adapting devices and smart constructs for craniofacial and orthopedic reconstructive procedures, similarly behaving cardiovascular devices such as stents, and miniaturized sensing systems that monitor and control the safety and effectiveness of biodegradable metals inside the body (a technology that could lead to responsive biosensors that help doctors determine when and where diseases occur in the body).

An educational component will translate the ERC’s research into a curriculum for aspiring engineers, including those at numerous high schools and community colleges across the United States and at universities primarily attended by groups underrepresented in engineering.

“This ERC is a true interdisciplinary effort to vastly improve many patients’ quality of life and to help educate the next generation of bioengineering and nanotechnology researchers,” Sankar said. “We hope to expand the presence of African Americans, women and socially and economically disadvantaged students in bioengineering and nanotechnology. This project seeks to provide pre-college and college students with the technical education in advanced processing and materials relevant to 21st-century careers. Ultimately, we want to help foster economic development through innovation that radically changes the way diseases are treated and to place the U.S. health care system in a strong position.”

The biodegradable devices and smart structures are intended to reduce complications and spare patients with conditions ranging from cleft palate and bone fractures to coronary heart disease from undergoing multiple surgeries. For instance, children born with a cleft palate are fitted with hard metal devices that must be removed and refitted over time. Devices the ERC researchers will explore—crafted from magnesium alloys and other biodegradable metals—would adapt to the body without refitting. Plus, magnesium alloys dissolve after their work is done with no clinical side effects, a feature also beneficial in the cardiovascular realm. Magnesium stents and other supports would restore cardiovascular function without having to remove the device and without exposing the patient to the potential complications of leaving it inside the body.

UC Professor Mark Schulz will serve as a deputy director of the latest ERC.
UC Professor Mark Schulz will serve as a deputy director of the latest ERC.

The devices will be designed to adapt to physical changes in a patient’s body and dissolve once they have healed. Naturally dissolving plates, screws, stents and other devices would reduce the follow-up surgeries and potential complications of major orthopedic, craniofacial, and cardiovascular procedures—sparing millions of patients worldwide added pain and medical expenses.

“The treatment of diseased and traumatized tissues is evolving as medical technologies increasingly harness the body’s regenerative powers,” Wagner said. “This ERC will extend this approach by combining the mechanical attributes of metals with biologically active agents that together will further encourage the natural healing process.”

The ERC combines the strengths of the project’s three primary universities: NCAT’s recognized expertise in metallurgy, based in its College of Engineering; Pitt’s strength in biomaterials and regenerative medicine stemming from the work conducted in the Swanson School’s Departments of Bioengineering, Chemical Engineering, and Mechanical Engineering and Material Sciences, MIRM, and the School of Dental Medicine; and UC’s research in nano- and sensor technology based in its interdepartmental Nanoworld and Smart Materials and Devices Laboratories.

Other partners include Germany’s Hannover Medical School for support in medical implantology. The Indian Institute of Technology in Madras, India, will provide a global perspective on the research and application of nano- and biomaterials. California State University at Los Angeles, a designated Hispanic Serving Institution, will conduct bioscience research to help engage underrepresented students.

Nearly 30 product development and industrial partners in the nano- and biotechnology market will form a consortium with ERC to provide input for the direction of research and to help transfer ERC technology to patients.