Merriam-Webster’s definition of “interface” provides a good view of the expansive development that’s been under way at the Bioengineering Research Center at the University of Kansas School of Engineering. In case you haven’t cracked the tome lately, here’s what M-W has to say. Interface: 1: a surface forming a common boundary of two bodies, spaces, or phases (an oil-water interface) 2: the place at which independent and often unrelated systems meet and act on or communicate with each other (the man-machine interface).
Many, though by no means all, of the research ideas germinating at the center focus on the interface of native biological materials and manmade devices. Moreover, the center’s collaborative approach to its discovery method is all about interface – the blending of seemingly disparate disciplines, each with its own dialect, to produce effective and lasting results.
Dr. Paulette Spencer, D.D.S., Ph.D. and Deane E. Ackers distinguished professor of mechanical engineering, has spent a career analyzing the interface and synthesizing new biomaterials that can repair or replace damaged or diseased native tissues.
“If you know that a material fails at the interface with biological tissues, then you must focus your attention on the interface if you want to develop superior biomaterials ” she said.. “If I really wanted to be about developing the next generation of biomaterials then in my opinion I had to start at the interface. I had to understand what was occurring at the interface that would cause — that would initiate — the failure.”
In her role as director of KU’s Bioengineering Research Center — BERC for short — Spencer is clear about the prospects and obligations before researchers. They must identify opportunities, investigate trouble spots and then synthesize better or more durable alternatives for the populace. Moreover, the timing for such discovery could hardly be more opportune.
Spencer points to figures from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, that physicians in the United States perform nearly 200,000 total hip replacements and 300,000 total knee replacements every year. In addition, replacement materials are used in millions of dental-oral-craniofacial procedures — Spencer’s specialty — ranging from tooth restorations to major reconstruction of facial hard and soft tissues. Synthetic replacement materials used in these various procedures often last less than one-tenth as long as the original material, she said. The materials’ short clinical lifespans can mean repeated treatment to maintain or even return the patient to a satisfactory level of performance.
“Our ideal model is the native healthy tissue,” Spencer said. “That native healthy tissue is the model we use for all of the chemistry (and) all of the mechanics that our constructs — our synthetic or tissue-engineered constructs — have to realize.” BERC researchers also will conduct fundamental studies of healthy biological tissues to better understand their structural properties and features, Spencer said. For example, bone has the ability to repair itself. Researchers need to scrutinize the tissue’s ability to undergo self-repair in order to recreate those features and incorporate them into a fatigue-resistant design. “What occurs naturally in healthy human beings are all the same principals we’d like to be able to capture in a material.”
Foci for the Future
Over the past several years, the School of Engineering has been quietly assembling a squadron of faculty members and researchers with expertise in bio-related engineering. These core faculty members — anchored in several different departments within the school — have been engaged in building ties and collaborating with counterparts at the KU Medical Center, the School of Pharmacy, the School of Allied Health and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. To be sure, their disciplines are diverse, yet when deftly integrated prove to be complementary.
“The research teams working within the center will be able to bridge the gap between clinical, basic and applied sciences,” said Stuart Bell, dean of the KU School of Engineering. “I’m confident they will tackle some of the great issues facing patients humankind today and turn theories and discoveries into ideas and products that change people’s lives for the better.”
Six main areas of activity have been identified for BERC and the corresponding graduate level bioengineering degree programs:
• biomaterials and tissue engineering,
• biomechanics and neural engineering,
• biomedical product design and development and
• biomolecular engineering.
Faculty and students will take on a variety of challenges facing the medical community that range from early diagnosis of disease, especially for various types of cancer; to device development for management of orthopedic injuries; to tissue repair and replacement for both soft and mineralized tissues.
These interdisciplinary research teams have created an environment that promotes collaboration among investigators, Spencer said.
“What the center is about is bringing together what appear to be diverse disciplines, putting that effort toward some common, integrated problems all related to materials and devices and technology development for the biomedical community,” Spencer said. By rallying material scientists, engineers, clinical scientists and pharmaceutical scientists to look at related problems, the teams will explore new directions and approaches and identify the next generation of technologies. Working independently, it’s unlikely these researchers would ever realize that potential, she said.
KU BERC’s structure may be its key to success.
“What’s different about us is the modeling component of the group works side by side with the analytical component,” Spencer said.
Plucking an example from the realm of biomaterials, Spencer described a process of discovery that quickly and effectively incorporates newly gleaned data.
“We have a complete feedback loop,” she said. “We may start with the analytical characterization, … we’ll move then to one of our computational models.” Current models allow the researcher to examine the synthesized material at the molecular level as well as manipulate the molecules to see how that action affects the material’s properties. “Once we go back to the synthesis lab, we synthesize the material as close to that computational molecular design as possible, then we do further characterization. Now we take that back to the molecular model and see if indeed it performs in the molecular model the way it was originally proscribed. Now if it does, then our next step is to interface this material with biological tissue and look at the behavior, understand the mechanical and chemical properties of the material at the interface with the biological tissue. We strive to understand these features at the nano-, micro- and macro- levels. … We take that information into another virtual environment, into a mathematical modeling environment, where we look at the behavior in a dynamic fashion, but in a fashion that simulates the clinical behavior, or the clinical challenges that this material will be placed under, and we determine how the material behaves under that scenario. Now, if at that stage everything looks very positive, then we are ready to go to the cellular level.
“In a very cost-effective manner, we have optimized the material before we ever get to the level of involving cells and certainly long before we ever get to the level of involving animals,” Spencer said.
Another KU distinction is the depth of its endeavors.
“There are a lot of groups that have capability at the macro scale. There are very few groups that would have the range from the nano to the micro,” she said.
BERC’s structure relies heavily on the abilities of clinical imaging devices and researchers in bioimaging.
“Obviously, some of these biological imaging devices that we’re working on ultimately we look forward to them having application in a variety of areas, including some of the areas associated with very early diagnosis of disease. We also look forward to working with the industrial community to translate our laboratory discoveries into real-world applications that will benefit society.”
Engineering a Stronger Economy
“Time to Get it Right,” a report prepared by the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation, pointed to research efforts in life sciences as having the greatest potential for economic and humanitarian returns for the region. Bioengineering research and KU were noted as key elements in the prosperity equation.
“BERC represents a partnership between higher education, the community and industry,” Dean Bell said. “The center will provide the mechanisms that facilitate and promote the introduction of new technologies into patient care and at the same time make strong contributions to the economic development of the region through technology transfer and entrepreneurship.”
The center has a clear road map that goes from the lab all the way to the patient, Spencer said.
“We’re not to the point where this roadway is a superhighway, but at least the support is there, the commitment is there,” she said. Partnerships forged as part of the Kansas City Area Life Sciences Initiative provide an opportunity to increase biomedical research productivity in the region and take advantage of educational and industrial ties that bring findings and solutions to patients.
“Sometimes that cutting-edge research, if it stays in that academic environment, it just dies on the vine. It doesn’t ever get to the stage of translating to materials or products that benefit the biomedical community, or patients (and) society at large,” Spencer said. “Translating that knowledge into real-world benefits is an arduous process.” Both the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health are focused on supporting basic science research. However, once the end result approaches the level of commercialization, funding agencies adopt the stance that industry should step in to support the actual transition. “It may still be five to 10 years before you’re ever into the level of a real-world application.”
The state of Kansas, specifically through the Kansas Biosciences Authority, is making a commitment to fill the gap and support academic-industrial partnerships that can fuel potential economic development, she said.
“The state is not just giving lip service.” It is investing in translational research.
In addition, the focus on entrepreneurial activity, product development and student internships in KU’s bioengineering graduate degree programs will help develop the next generation of leaders in the biomedical industry.
“By integrating these entrepreneurship activities into our classroom we’re building the road map to facilitate the translation of our laboratory discoveries into these real-world applications,” Spencer said. Students will expand their leadership potential and abilities with the expectation that they will be able to take these cutting-edge technologies and translate them into real-world benefits.
Spencer is excited about what she’s witnessing at KU, specifically the enthusiasm and the we-can-do-better attitude in others she sees around her. The mind-set permeates strata including not only faculty and students, but also leadership in the school and the university, she said.
“There’s genuine passion about giving back to the state.” If that passion is channeled in the proper ways and with the proper support and interaction — including the support of the Kansas Biosciences Authority — that’s really a good example of how to build academic-industrial relationships that will lead to economic development, she said. “And I think the commitment here to accomplish that is so genuine that it will happen.”
“You have people on board that are looking 20 and 30 years down the road. … There are very few people here who are not talking in that continuum: five, 10, 15, 20, 30, 40 years down the road.”
Learn more about KU Bioengineering.