North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (NCAT) will lead the research in partnership with the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt) and the University of Cincinnati (UC). Serving as project director is Jagannathan Sankar, NCAT's Distinguished University Professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Center for Advanced Materials and Smart Structures. Pitt's William Wagner, deputy director of the University's McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine and professor of surgery, bio-engineering, and chemical engineering, will serve as deputy director along with UC professor Mark Schulz, co-director of the UC Nanoworld and Smart Materials and Devices Laboratories.
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 considered important to future generations. Five grants were awarded this year from 143 applicants and 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 bio-engineering department at an HCBU with the assistance of faculty members in the Department of Bio-engineering in Pitt's Swanson School of Engineering, the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine, and at UC. The 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 cranio-facial 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. An educational component will translate ERC's research into a curriculum for aspiring engineers, including those at numerous high schools and community colleges across the United States and at universities primarily attended by groups underrepresented in engineering.
"This ERC is a true interdisciplinary effort to vastly improve many patients' quality-of-life and to help educate the next generation of bio-engineering and nanotechnology researchers", Jagannathan Sankar stated. "We hope to expand the presence of African Americans, women, and socially and economically disadvantaged students in bio-engineering and nanotechnology. This project seeks to provide pre-college and college students with the technical education in advanced processing and materials relevant to 21st-century careers. Ultimately, we want to help foster economic development through innovation that radically changes the way diseases are treated and to place the United States health care system in a strong position."
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 remove the device and without exposing the patient to the potential complications of leaving it inside the body.
"The treatment of diseased and traumatized tissues is evolving as medical technologies increasingly harness the body's regenerative powers", William Wagner stated. "This ERC will extend this approach by combining the mechanical attributes of metals with biologically active agents that together will further encourage the natural healing process."
The ERC combines the strengths of the project's three primary universities: NCAT's recognized expertise in metallurgy, based in its College of Engineering; Pitt's strength in biomaterials and regenerative medicine stemming from the work conducted in the Swanson School's Departments of Bio-engineering, Chemical Engineering, and Mechanical Engineering and Material Sciences, the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine, and the School of Dental Medicine; and UC's research in nano- and sensor technology based in its interdepartmental Nanoworld and Smart Materials and Devices Laboratories.
"Furthermore, this consortium has deep roots in the shared belief of offering the best educational opportunities and best resources available to our students", stated UC College of Engineering dean Carlo Montemagno, who will participate in the ERC project. "It is a central trust placed upon public universities to not only develop new technologies but also to help our students in launching new careers in engineering, science, and medicine."
Other partners include Germany's Hannover Medical School for support in medical implantology. The Indian Institute of Technology in Madras, India, will provide a global prospective on the research and application of nano- and biomaterials. California State University at Los Angeles, a designated Hispanic-Serving Institution, will conduct bio-science 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.