University of Pittsburgh bioengineers can look forward to a continued need for the kinds of technologies they develop. As reported by writer Jeffery Fraser, PittChronicle, today’s aging population, a growing focus on health issues, and other factors are expected to sustain the demand for sophisticated materials, devices, and the various other technologies that emerge from the research laboratories of Pitt’s Department of Bioengineering faculty. Continued research and technological breakthroughs have revolutionized the science of bioengineering, resulting in advances never before thought possible.
In a field that demands collaboration, Pitt bioengineering researchers find a wealth of leading experts in diverse disciplines within the University’s Swanson School of Engineering, its School of Medicine, and its other schools of the health sciences; the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) health network; and the Pitt-UPMC McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine.
The results have been widely recognized, with Pitt in recent years being ranked as one of the nation’s top universities for bioengineering research and education. In 2010, for example, U.S. News and World Report ranked Pitt’s graduate program in bioengineering 12th in the nation overall, along with the University of Michigan and University of California, Berkeley. Among public institutions, Pitt was ranked fourth best. In the 2010 rankings by the National Research Council, the most comprehensive, data-based assessment of research-doctorate programs in the United States, Pitt’s bioengineering program was ranked seventh out of 53 programs.
Another indicator of the caliber of Pitt’s bioengineering research is the amount of funding the Swanson School’s Department of Bioengineering receives from competitive federal funding programs. In 2009 and 2010 alone, Pitt bioengineering researchers were awarded $5.6 million to develop a heart-assist pump for infants and toddlers, part of a $23.6 million effort by the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, and $5.1 million from the NIH to explore new methods for growing cells from existing tissues and organs. In addition, Pitt was selected as one of the leaders of a national $85 million program to advance regenerative medicine and develop treatments for wounded soldiers. Funding for that program stems from a new federal entity, the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine.
“We are a national program,” says Harvey Borovetz, PhD, distinguished professor, chair of the Bioengineering Department, Robert L. Hardesty professor of surgery, and a professor of chemical and petroleum engineering. “And we’re a national program because we have unique strengths and collaborations.”
Pitt’s Department of Bioengineering was established in the Swanson School of Engineering in 1998. Today it includes 23 full-time faculty, more than 100 faculty holding secondary appointments in bioengineering, 180 undergraduate students, and about 180 graduate students, two-thirds of whom are PhD candidates. The collaborative nature of Pitt’s bioengineering environment is a key factor in the department’s ability to enroll a significant number of PhD candidates, half of whom are mentored by Pitt School of Medicine faculty.
Robust research collaborations abound in the Department of Bioengineering. The bioengineering scientists work on innovative, significant work that benefits public health alongside colleagues who are public-health practitioners. In his story, Mr. Fraser highlights the efforts of these McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine faculty members:
- Harvey Borovetz, PhD, distinguished professor, chair of the Bioengineering Department, Robert L. Hardesty professor of surgery, and a professor of chemical and petroleum engineering
- Alan Russell, PhD, director, McGowan Institute, and university professor of surgery in Pitt’s School of Medicine
- Joel Schuman, MD, chair of Pitt’s Department of Ophthalmology and a professor of bioengineering
- William Federspiel, PhD, the William Kepler Whiteford professor of bioengineering, surgery, and chemical engineering
- John Kellum, MD, FACP, FCCM, professor of critical care medicine at the University of Pittsburgh and a transplant physician in anesthesiology at the Thomas E. Starzl Transplantation Institute
- William Wagner, PhD, deputy director of the McGowan Institute and a professor of surgery, bioengineering, and chemical engineering
- Michael Sacks, PhD, the John A. Swanson endowed chair in the Department of Bioengineering
- Tracy Cui, PhD, professor of bioengineering
- Prashant Kumta, PhD, the Edward R. Weidlein chair in the Swanson School of Engineering and is a professor in the Departments of Bioengineering, Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, and Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science
The story’s featured works include:
- a heart-assist pump for infants and toddlers
- products for detecting and addressing chemical contamination in settings that range from war zones to hospitals
- deciphering the complex chemistry that would allow researchers to more effectively and efficiently separate cells as part of their work to develop new regenerative medicine technologies
- guidance systems for eye surgery
- a respiratory-assist device that does the job of a ventilator—without the ventilator
- a catheter that sits in a blood vessel and oxygenates and removes carbon dioxide to provide respiratory support
- a device that filters a sepsis patient’s blood through a cartridge of absorbent beads designed to remove the chemical molecules that orchestrate the body’s innate immune system
- an elastic patch designed to support a damaged part of the heart and help it heal
- an injectable gel that at body temperature becomes an elastic girdle to reduce stress on the healing heart tissue
- a living-tissue replacement heart valve
- engineered healthy neural tissue
- ways to convince the brain to tolerate implantable devices
- advanced technologies to help overcome severe bone defects and injuries
“I think bioengineering is in the beginning of its growth phase,” says Dr. Russell. “And I think we are a long way off from seeing any change in that.”
Illustration: University of Pittsburgh, Department of Bioengineering, Swanson School of Engineering