December 2023 | VOL. 22, NO. 12 |

Collaboration, Innovation, and Scientific Progress: Celebrating Dr. Wagner’s Tenure at McGowan

William Wagner, PhD

“The success of the McGowan Institute speaks for itself,” states Stephen Winowich, President of Procirca, a clinical healthcare services business focused on cardiovascular surgery and clinical engineering. “And Dr. Wagner’s contributions to McGowan as a faculty member and Director will be long lasting.”

William R. Wagner, PhD, became a Deputy Director at McGowan upon its establishment in 2001 and Interim Director beginning in September 2011. He served as Director from April 2012 until September 2023.

During Dr. Wagner’s tenure as Director, the McGowan Institute became a leader in early integration of regulatory expertise into product development efforts. The Institute has made an international impact on healthcare with its development of circulatory assist devices, pulmonary assist devices, and extracellular matrix-based materials for regenerative repair and healing.

Dr. Wagner has played an important role in the facilitation and nurturing of academic innovation and the transfer of this technology to positively impact society: during his time at McGowan, the Institute created 16 start-up companies (out of a current total of 35), which have attracted over $289 million in external investment.

In addition to external investment, under Dr. Wagner’s leadership, the McGowan Institute has received countless grants and awards for its research from agencies and organizations like the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

The McGowan Institute currently receives $14 million annually in grants and awards for research and sponsored programs and has received $206 million of leveraged investment as a key result of relationship-building between Dr. Wagner and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. These research dollars further benefit the Pennsylvania economy, not only supporting cutting-edge technologies and therapies in regenerative medicine, but also providing jobs for over 2,000 faculty, administrators, and trainees.

In addition to helping the Institute secure major research and technology development grants, Dr.  Wagner has also encouraged collaborations with industrial partners in the medical device and pharmaceutical spaces. He has fostered the creation of numerous coalitions, including the Armed Forces Institute for Regenerative Medicine; the Pennsylvania Pediatric Device Consortium; the Alliance for Regenerative Rehabilitation Research and Training; the Dental Oral and Craniofacial Regeneration Consortium; the Alliance for Biomanufacturing in Low Earth Orbit; and the Engineering Research Center for Revolutionizing Metallic Biomaterials.

Dr. Wagner’s collaborative approach to regenerative medicine research has led to strategic, diverse partnerships; the drive to push medical boundaries; and expertise across multiple specialties in medical research.

“Dr. Wagner focused on ‘what’s next’ in the field,” states Harvey Borovetz, PhD, “and how the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine (MIRM) can be best positioned to be a leader in specific areas.” Dr. Borovetz, who has known Dr. Wagner for 32 years, continues, “This approach is exemplified in the McGowan initiatives under Dr. Wagner’s leadership in pediatric medical devices, craniofacial and dental devices and therapies, low-G cellular and tissue engineering and biomanufacturing, and metallic biomaterials, to name a few examples.”

Dr. Borovetz also spoke of some of Dr. Wagner’s major scientific contributions to McGowan, noting, “Dr. Wagner was the University of Pittsburgh’s principal investigator and Scientific Director for a 12-year, $40 million NSF Engineering Research Center (ERC) entitled, ‘Revolutionizing Metallic Biomaterials.’”

Dr. Wagner’s research interests are in cardiovascular engineering with projects that address medical device biocompatibility and design, biomaterial development, and tissue engineering. The Wagner Lab has developed and demonstrated significant platform technologies that are providing solutions to challenging cardiovascular therapies. His research has generated 50 patents to date, and his patent filings have resulted in the formation of three companies, one of which initiated two clinical trials.

The Wagner Lab is also a fertile training facility with PhD candidates, MD/PhD candidates, and post-doctoral trainees all collaborating, learning, and applying the multidisciplinary tools essential in advancing the field of regenerative medicine.

In the words of the late Professor John Murphy, McGowan’s first Executive Director who worked with Dr. Wagner for several decades, “Bill has excelled at bringing together typically diverse disciplines and realizing technical outcomes that often exceed expectations.”

Timothy R. Billiar, MD, Chair of the Department of Surgery at the University of Pittsburgh, who has also worked with Dr. Wagner for over two decades, echoes Prof. Murphy’s sentiment, stating, “[As the leader of the McGowan Institute], Dr. Wagner has worked hard to interact through translational research with our clinical surgeons and has provided an important venue for surgeons and scientists to collaborate and interact.”

Dr. Billiar continues, “Dr. Wagner is a Distinguished Professor of Surgery, and we are very proud of his accomplishments both as the leader of the MIRM and as a highly productive bioengineer and scientist. It has been a true pleasure to work with Bill; he is a thoughtful and innovative leader.”

Dr. Wagner’s innovations and work have been recognized with numerous awards. Among his recognitions are the University of Pittsburgh Marlin Mickle Outstanding Innovator Award; the Society for Biomaterials Founders Award and Clemson Award for Applied Research; the Chancellor’s Distinguished Research Award from the University of Pittsburgh; and the Senior Investigator Award from Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine International Society (TERMIS)-Americas. In 2017 he was inducted as a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, and in 2018 he was named Inventor of the Year by the Pittsburgh Intellectual Property Law Association. Additionally, Dr. Wagner is the current president of the Society for Biomaterials and the Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief of one of the leading biomaterials journals, Acta Biomaterialia. In this capacity, he has provided a well-respected forum for the peer review and dissemination of emerging technologies.

Most importantly, over the past 12 years as Director of the McGowan Institute, among all the accolades, the innovations, and collaborations, Dr. Wagner has helped novel technologies and therapies reach millions of patients, improving the lives of people locally, nationally, and globally.

“Our philosophy is,” states Dr. Wagner, “if it does not get to the patient, if it does not impact patients’ lives, we’ve not fulfilled our mission.” Together with the more than 250 faculty members at the McGowan Institute, as well as with numerous staff and students, Dr. Wagner has lived the Institute’s philosophy.

Dr. Billiar states, “On a personal note, I have always been impressed with Bill’s high level of integrity and commitment to personal excellence. He will leave a legacy with the MIRM as a leading institute for regenerative medicine and leaves much good will as he moves onto the next phase of his career.” Dr. Wagner holds appointments in bioengineering and chemical and petroleum engineering at the University of Pittsburgh. He is a Distinguished Professor of Surgery, Chemical Engineering, and Bioengineering.

“We are very fortunate to have Bill Wagner as part of the Pitt community and affiliated with the Department of Surgery,” continues Dr. Billiar. “We wish him the very best and look forward to many future interactions and collaborations.”

Thank you, Dr. Wagner, for fulfilling the mission – enthusiastically, collaboratively, and with integrity.