Over the past 30 years, Pittsburgh has reinvented itself. Once an industrial giant, today Pittsburgh is identified through its world-class educational entities and its discoveries in health care, translation research, and information technology. The founding director of the
McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine
Alan Russell, PhD, distinguished university professor of surgery, and professor in the departments of Bioengineering, Chemical Engineering, and Rehabilitation Science and Technology, University of Pittsburgh, recently spoke with Christine O’Toole of Pittsburgh magazine about Pittsburgh’s transformation. Her article entitled “Dynamic Duo” features that conversation.
Dr. Russell believes two events occurring in the 1980’s laid the foundation for Pittsburgh’s new economy: (1) Through the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Dr. Thomas Starzl’s discovery of new organ transplant therapies that revolutionized the field, and (2) through funding from the National Science Foundation, Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University professors (backed by Westinghouse Electric Co.) established one of the nation’s first supercomputing centers.
“We were already a leader in transplantation [in the 1980’s],” Dr. Russell pointed out. “With supercomputing and early collaborations with CMU, we [began] working across disciplines. We had the desire to become world-class. Now, the environment is world-class.”
Over the years, the region has replaced more than 150,000 manufacturing positions with 200,000 jobs in education and medicine. Today’s local and national jobs forecast calls for continued demand in engineering, information technology, health care, and education. And in Pittsburgh, scientists collaborate across disciplines. That’s evident at the McGowan Institute, where stem-cell researchers, bioengineers and polymer chemists work side by side. The McGowan Institute builds artificial lungs and hearts; isolates cellular building blocks that trigger the body’s regrowth of bones, muscles, and nerves; and has taken the steps toward growing human organs.
McGowan Institute scientists have focused on adult stem cells and have proved they can be successfully used to re-grow a dozen key tissue types, including bone, nerve, muscle, and fat. They have also zeroed in on a natural biological substance that’s dubbed the extra cellular matrix; when placed in patients, it acts as a scaffold that stimulates surrounding cells to produce the exact type of tissue required.
“The Pitt [School of Medicine’s] Department of Surgery was appointing engineers way back,” noted Dr. Russell. “There was a suggestion that people work together. We use slightly different tools to do the same thing, and it ties together beautifully.”
Pittsburgh research efforts are nurtured by tech business-development groups and effective incubators such as the Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse, a public/private partnership that assists entrepreneurs in bringing medical devices, therapeutics, diagnostics, and other health discoveries to the market. Innovation Works, another partnership, concentrates on growing new technology companies.
“In terms of technology transfer [bringing new academic discoveries to market], Pittsburgh is one of the top-10 cities in the world. We do OK,” said Dr. Russell.
Kathleen Blanchard, RN, EmaxHealth, asked the question: “Will 2012 Offer New Ways to Treat Disease with Regenerative Medicine?” In her article, Dr. Russell responded that there are very few things that can really promote “healthy aging,” other than disease prevention. His goal is to find new ways to intervene early in disease processes in ways that make the body whole again.
Dr. Russell’s proposition is that research should focus more on regenerative medicine that could be done in every organ system of the body—for instance, injecting the pancreas with cells that can help healing when diabetes is diagnosed early.
He says, “If we get sick, the message is we will treat your symptoms and you need to adjust to a new way of life.” Instead, he says regenerative rehabilitation could do a better job than just giving medications to patients.
Dr. Russell further explains that DNA has the capacity to naturally heal the body, a process that is lost with aging. To change the way we heal, we need to “listen to the body’s language.”
Ms. Blanchard summarizes, 2012 may indeed bring new approaches for managing disease with regenerative medicine that incorporates biology, chemistry, computer science, engineering, genetics, medicine, robotics, and more to tackle challenging medical problems that plague humans.
Dynamic Duo, Pittsburgh magazine
Bio: Dr. Alan Russell