Pitt Part of $18.5 Million Project to Design Biodegradable Implantable Devices

Issue Date: 
September 8, 2008

University of Pittsburgh researchers will take part in a five-year, $18.5 million project designed to develop implantable devices made from biodegradable metals. The Pitt researchers will help lead dozens of engineers and doctors from universities and industries across the world in creating devices designed to adapt to physical changes in a patient’s body and dissolve once healing has occurred. The project’s goal is to reduce the follow-up surgeries and potential complications of major orthopaedic, craniofacial, and cardiovascular procedures and spare millions of patients worldwide added pain and medical expense.

Pitt belongs to the project’s central partnership along with the University of Cincinnati (UC) and the project’s lead institution, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (NCAT). Serving as deputy director is William Wagner, deputy director of the Pitt-UPMC McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine and professor of surgery, bioengineering, and chemical engineering in the Swanson School of Engineering.

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


William Wagner

Jagannathan Sankar, NCAT’s Distinguished University Professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Center for Advanced Materials and Smart Structures, will direct the project. UC professor Mark Schulz, codirector of the UC Nanoworld and Smart Materials and Devices Laboratories, will join Wagner as a deputy director.

The project stems from a five-year Engineering Research Center (ERC) grant NCAT received from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in collaboration with Pitt and UC. The highly competitive ERC grant supports large-scale university and industry collaborations on pioneering technologies. Five grants were awarded this year 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. To coincide with the grant project, NCAT will establish the first bioengineering department at an HCBU with the assistance of faculty members in the Pitt Department of Bioengineering, McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine, and UC. The NCAT department will offer bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD degrees.

The ERC project will focus primarily on producing three technologies: biodegradable and self-adapting devices and smart constructs for craniofacial and orthopaedic 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).

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 be removed and without exposing the patient to the potential complications of having devices left inside the body.

The project pools Pitt’s strengths 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, the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine, and the School of Dental Medicine with NCAT’s recognized expertise in metallurgy and UC’s research in nano- and sensor technology.

“This project builds on two of the most important research areas in the Swanson School, bio- and mechanical engineering,” said Gerald Holder, the U.S. Steel Dean of Engineering at Pitt. “We are proud to be a part of the team developing the technology that will help people by improving many medical procedures. The impact on our local economy, which is highly dependent on medical-based development, will be very significant. New companies will result from the research done through this ERC, companies that will continue to conduct research, manufacture medical devices, and develop advanced procedures and technology.”

Other partners include Germany’s Hannover Medical School for support in medical implantology; the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras, India, which will provide a global prospective on the research and application of nano- and biomaterials; and California State University at Los Angeles, a designated Hispanic Serving Institution, which 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.