Pitt Gets $3.54 Million Bioengineering Grant From the Coulter Foundation

Issue Date: 
September 26, 2011
Harvey BorovetzHarvey Borovetz

The Swanson School of Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh has received a $3.54 million grant from the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation. Pitt is one of only five universities nationwide to receive the foundation’s Coulter Translational Partnership II Award; the five-year grant to the Swanson School’s Department of Bioengineering will fund research that employs engineering techniques to develop improvements in health care, with the ultimate goal of accelerating the introduction of new technologies into patient care.

The award from the Coulter Foundation will be supplemented by $1.5 million in matching funds from the Pitt School of Medicine, the Swanson School, and the University’s Office of Technology Management.

“We are thrilled to have been chosen to receive this award and participate in the Coulter Foundation program. Not only will it be of tremendous benefit to the individual researchers who receive funding, but it affirms both the growing prominence and future potential of Pitt’s bioengineering program,” said Gerald D. Holder, Pitt’s U.S. Steel Dean of Engineering.

Harvey Borovetz, chair of the Department of Bioengineering, the Robert L. Hardesty Professor in the School of Medicine’s Department of Surgery, and deputy director of the Artificial Organs and Medical Devices division of the Pitt-UPMC McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine, will be the principal investigator and one of three co-leaders for the Coulter program at Pitt.

The other members of the leadership team for the Coulter program at Pitt are Stephen Badylak, a professor in the School of Medicine’s Department of Surgery and director of tissue engineering in the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine, and Marc Malandro, director of the Office of Technology Management and associate vice chancellor for technology management and commercialization at Pitt.

Pratap Khanwilkar will serve as the Coulter Program Director and Visiting Professor in the Swanson School’s bioengineering department and as Executive-in-Residence in the University’s Office of Technology Management.

Khanwilkar, who has studied, taught, and conducted research at the University of Utah for 28 years, most recently as an adjunct professor in its Department of Bioengineering, is the founder of six medical device product/service companies. In a uniquely fashioned, multifaceted position, Khanwilkar has been hired to guide the development of appropriate projects to be undertaken by Pitt researchers; ensure that they are properly vetted by a Coulter oversight committee; and facilitate the progress of securing additional funding, licensing intellectual property, and developing spin-off companies.

“We are especially pleased to have been chosen to receive this award because the University has demonstrated not only its ability to form partnerships between clinicians and engineers to develop ideas and products that will directly impact patients, but also the passion to see those ideas through to clinical application,” Borovetz said.

Another significant determinant was the strength of the relationships the foundation has had with both individuals like Borovetz and the Pitt researchers whom the foundation already supports through the Coulter Translational Research Awards program for individual investigators.

The $3.54 million award was made to Pitt as part of a second phase of program development from the Coulter Foundation. Translational partnership awards through the first program development phase were made in 2005 to nine U.S. universities. The $40 million awarded by Coulter in that first phase has resulted in an additional $300 million in investments to further the development and market applications of the various projects initiated as a result of the nine Coulter-funded programs.

The Coulter Foundation and six universities in the first phase established $20,000,000 funds at each school to continue the program. Half of the funds were contributed by the Coulter Foundation and each school raised the remainder.

The foundation used feedback it sought from universities that received funding in the first phase of the program to adopt a more formal procedure, dubbed the “Coulter Process,” which they believe will yield even richer technology transfers of new products, applications, materials, and/or services to the medical community.

The Coulter Process allows for a one-year startup period during which the five-year program will be established on campus by the Pitt program’s leadership team.

“Through the research funded by this generous award, the University’s bioengineering faculty members are pleased to partner with the Coulter Foundation in working to fulfill the mission of Wallace Coulter expressed in his company’s motto, ‘Science Serving Humanity,’” Borovetz stated.

Bioengineering is the application of engineering principles to analyze, design, and manufacture tools, structures, and processes to solve problems in the life sciences. Successful patient-focused and commercialization-oriented collaborations between engineers and physicians who traditionally employ differing methodologies are critical to the burgeoning field and to regional economic development.

Pitt’s Department of Bioengineering, which was established in 1998 as part of the Swanson School of Engineering, is ranked as one of the nation’s top bioengineering programs and has received millions of dollars to fund research for such advances as the development of a tiny cardiac-assist device for infants, a blood-treatment tool that can free patients from ventilator dependence, and materials that help generate bone. The department is home to 23 full-time faculty and more than 100 faculty holding secondary appointments.

The Department of Bioengineering is currently developing a new Center for Medical Innovation (CMI), which will collaborate with the Coulter Translational Partnership Program to define early-stage, innovative medical technologies and to promote their commercialization. CMI also has an educational mission to develop the next generation of medical product innovators through the cooperative efforts of the Swanson School of Engineering and  the Schools of the Health Sciences, Business, and Law.

Although the Coulter award will enable some of Pitt’s most-accomplished scientists to conduct leading-edge research in some of the University’s most-advanced and best-equipped laboratories, the awards were made possible in large part by a discovery that was made in far less sophisticated surroundings by a young inventor who was unable to complete his college education because of the hardships of the Great Depression. Wallace H. Coulter (1913-1998) may not be a name as widely recognized as those of Thomas Edison, Marie Curie, or Jonas Salk, but, like these more famous innovators, Coulter and the Coulter® Principle he developed made wide-reaching contributions to modern medicine, science, and industry.

The Coulter Principle was discovered in the 1940’s, when the supply of paint for an experiment Coulter was conducting in his garage laboratory had frozen, and Coulter was able to substitute his own blood for the paint because the two substances had similar viscosity. Coulter’s experiment used electronic impedance to count and size microscopic particles suspended in fluid. This technique led to the development of the Coulter Counter. The latter device replaced the laborious practice of manually counting blood cells and was the first of many such instruments used in a wide range of applications, including the “complete blood count” or “CBC,” which is the most commonly ordered diagnostic test in the world today.

Coulter’s technique is also used for analyzing different blood components as well as determining the quality of many consumer items, including paint, chocolate, and cosmetics, and assessing the purity of NASA’s jet fuel. The invention, one of 82 Coulter would patent throughout his lifetime, was manufactured and sold by Coulter Electronics, an international company based in Miami, Fla., that provided the wealth Coulter would use to establish the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation before his death. The recipient of the John Scott Award for Scientific Achievement in 1960 and a 1998 inductee into the National Academy of Engineering, Coulter was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2004.