William Wagner, PhD, Director of the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine and Distinguished Professor of Surgery, Bioengineering and Chemical Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, recently participated in the University of Pittsburgh’s TEDx 2021.  Dr. Wagner highlighted the history of the McGowan Institute and also several current research efforts underway during his presentation.

The McGowan Institute was named after William McGowan, the head of MCI, a competing local and long distant phone service for AT&T.  It was through the Starzl Transplantation Institute that Mr. McGowan became familiar with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center when in 1986 he needed a heart transplant.  While convalescing, Mr. McGowan engaged his restless, entrepreneurial mind with all he could learn about medical research. Ever the visionary, Mr. McGowan believed that artificial organs could alleviate the shortage of donor organs and perhaps provide permanent alternatives to transplantation. In 1990, William and Sue Gin McGowan donated $1 million to fund a like-minded center. The McGowan Center for Artificial Organ Development was established in 1992, shortly after Mr. McGowan’s death.

As science has evolved, so has Mr. McGowan’s namesake institute. The twin revolutions in genetic and tissue engineering began to shape the idea that, ultimately, regrowing the patient’s own tissues to replace those lost to disease is an achievable — and preferable — goal. When the mission of the McGowan Center expanded to include “biohybrid” organs (those that combine artificial and natural components), tissue engineering, and cellular therapies, it was renamed the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine. The Institute is the single base of operations for leading scientists and clinicians at UPMC and the University of Pittsburgh working to develop new regenerative therapies.

Today, the synergy between clinicians and engineers and later the support of technology companies is what drives the research successes at the McGowan Institute.  In addition, the tight integration of clinicians and engineers with students is what moves the research forward through the next generations of scientists to come.

Dr. Wagner explained several McGowan Institute technologies developed and/or in the pipeline for development:

  • HeartMate II Continuous Flow Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD):  The HeartMate II is intended for a broad range of advanced heart failure patients and is the only continuous-flow LVAD approved by the FDA for both Bridge to Transplantation and Destination Therapy.  The device is a miniature rotary pump with axial flow bearings and is intended for patients with end-stage heart failure. A key feature of the design is a sophisticated control system developed by researchers at the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine that senses when to increase or decrease the rate of blood flow.  Other approved and experimental devices require manual adjustments. The control system developed by the researchers involves a patented algorithm that permits the device system to respond to the needs of the patient based on the level of activity, generating up to10 liters of blood flow per minute, a rate that would be required to climb stairs, for example. The controller was the brainchild of McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine affiliated faculty member James Antaki, PhD, then an associate professor in Biomedical Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University and adjunct professor in the University of Pittsburgh’s Departments of Surgery and Bioengineering.  McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine faculty member Robert Kormos, MD, formerly a professor with tenure specializing in cardiothoracic surgery at the University of Pittsburgh, director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) Artificial Heart Program, and co-director of the UPMC Heart Transplantation Program, was the clinician involved in this work.
  • Artificial lung development through ALung Technologies, Inc., a respiratory dialysis device:  During the COVID-19 pandemic, the FDA approved ALung’s device for emergency use.  More than 100 patients used the Hemolung® Respiratory Assist System in lieu of being placed on a ventilator. This work is lead by William Federspiel, PhD, John A. Swanson Professor in the Department of Bioengineering with secondary appointments in Chemical Engineering, Critical Care Medicine, and the Clinical Translation Institute. He is also the Director of the Medical Devices Laboratory at the McGowan Institute.
  • Pediatric device technology development: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced that it has awarded five grants totaling up to $6 million per year over the next five years to Pediatric Device Consortia (PDC) across the country that will provide advice and support services to innovators of children’s medical devices. Dr. Wagner is a co-principal investigator on this effort.
  • Livers grown in lymph nodes:  For patients with liver failure, LyGenesis has been approved for a Phase 1 clinical trial.  LyGenesis’ technology uses lymph nodes as bioreactors to regrow functioning organs within a patient’s own body.  LyGenesis was built on nearly a decade of groundbreaking academic research by Eric Lagasse, PharmD, PhD, Associate Professor in the Department of Pathology at the University of Pittsburgh and LyGenesis’ Chief Scientific Officer.
  • Revolutionizing Metallic Biomaterials:  An interdisciplinary team of investigators from North Carolina A&T State University (NCAT), the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt), and the University of Cincinnati (UC), has been formed based on its members individual track records of success in science, engineering, and technology. The intellectual merit of the current proposal is the intertwining of carefully planned, cutting edge research, education, and economic activities on a global level among partner institutions. The major goal is to revolutionize metallic biomaterials and smart coatings with built-in, responsive biosensory capabilities which can adapt to biological changes to create novel bio-functional Engineered Systems: Craniofacial and Orthopedic Applications, Cardiovascular and Thoracic Devices, and Responsive Biosensors and Neural Applications. Dr. Wagner is the Deputy Director of this effort.

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Pitt TEDx 2021: Dr. William Wagner