Business & Tech

BU wins $20 million to develop personalized heart tissue

Boston University was awarded $20 million to create real human heart tissue, using stem cells, tissue engineering, and nanotechnology methods, for clinical purposes.

The goal is to create personalized cardiac tissue, tailored from an individual’s stem cells, that could lead to more effective treatment for heart attacks or be used to test out medications.

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The five-year award, granted by the National Science Foundation, or NSF, would allow for the creation of a new Engineering Research Center, or ERC, on the BU campus.

“When you have a heart attack you never get cured, you get managed,” said David Bishop, a BU professor of electrical and computer engineering and the director of the center. “And that’s our 10-year vision, creating a way to establish full cardiac function.”

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BU will be joined in the endeavor by the University of Michigan and Florida International University. Six other institutions will also be affiliated with the new center, including Harvard Medical School, Columbia University, and the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland.

This won’t be a typical multi-institution research enterprise, Bishop says.

Usually, he said, a professor would apply for grants, do the research, and hope the results would be promising enough for a company or startup to build on. In this case, Bishop said, the National Science Foundation made it mandatory to merge the fundamental research with development opportunities, having collaboration essentially ingrained in the action plan.

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“The NSF wants to create a market pull from the beginning, so the technology will create a unicorn, a startup or economic development in the billions, not the millions,” Bishop said.

More than 30 companies, from the likes of Johnson and Johnson and Boston Medical Center, have expressed interest in working with the ERC, Bishop said.

“Interesting technologies sometimes die; it’s a well understood problem where you can have a wonderful research enterprise on one end, and a very strong industry on the other, but those handoffs between the two often fall in peril,” he said.

Kenneth Lutchen, dean of the BU College of Engineering, said the university’s “tremendous science and technology strengths” should help the new endeavor make its timeline and corporate collaboration targets. BU professors will lead efforts in various areas, including cellular engineering, biomedical engineering, photonics, and nanotechnology.

“It’s going to be a pipeline,” Bishop said. “The flow from science to clinical impact and human health and then making sure that it’s going to change people’s lives.”

Natasha Mascarenhas can be reached at natasha.mascarenhas@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @nmasc_.
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