National Science Foundation Research Award
Guest: Dr Roger Markwald – Regenerative Medicine & Cell Biology, MUSC
Host: Dr. Linda Austin – College of Medicine / Dean’s Office, MUSC
Dr. Linda Austin: Dr. Roger Markwald is Chairman of the Department of Regenerative Medicine & Cell Biology here at the Medical University of South Carolina. Dr. Markwald, you’ve had some exciting news this week. And we at MUSC and across the state of South Carolina are so proud of the work that you and your colleagues have done in being awarded a 20 million dollar grant from the National Science Foundation for an investigation titled South Carolina Project: To Engineer a Vascular Tree. Dr. Markwald, tell us about this project. What is it that you propose to do?
Dr. Roger Markwald: Thank you, Dr. Austin. The concept is all about using printers and nanotechnology, computer-driven robotics to create tissues and organs based on stem cell biology and technologies that have been pioneered here in South Carolina. Bioprinting is the basis by which we expect to be able to build a branched vascular tree. The purpose of the branched vascular tree is to overcome the obstacles that have impeded our abilities, and any hope or vision, of being able to print functional organs that are presently the kinds of organs being desired by tens of thousands of patients in our country.
Dr. Linda Austin: This sounds very complex, and I don’t know if it’s even possible to simplify it. But, as best I understand it, the goal is to create the vascular tree, that is, the blood vessels; the arteries, arterioles, I would assume, then capillaries, and then back to the venous tree, that would serve as a scaffolding to build the organ?
Dr. Roger Markwald: Exactly. The whole idea is kind of like building a house. You put the plumbing in before you put up the bricks. And I think that’s what we’re trying to do; build from the inside, out. So, by trying to do the vascular tree, the concept is to take an approach different from what everyone else has been trying to do. From outside, in, we’re trying to go inside, out.
Dr. Linda Austin: This is truly a collaborative project. You mentioned your colleagues at Clemson University. What other universities will be involved in this?
Dr. Roger Markwald: There are ten colleges and universities in the project from all over the state, including even some technical colleges: York College; Voorhees College (Denmark, SC); Claflin University at Orangeburg; Furman; Greenville Tech, as well as Clemson University and USC, and MUSC.
Dr. Linda Austin: Wow. You alluded to multiple organ systems. So, is the focus of the grant, then, the concept that if you can create the vascular tree then, potentially, that could be used for a number of different organs? But that first hurdle is how to create the vascular tree.
Dr. Roger Markwald: That’s right. You can’t go more than 100 microns away from a blood vessel and hope to live as a cell. So, the idea is if you could build a vascular tree, it could also serve as the scaffold to hang the functional tissues of an organ. It’s standard procedure now to be able to convert stem cells into liver cells or neurons, or cardiac muscle. That can be done in a test tube, and it can be done in large cell numbers. But being able to make them function as a three dimensional organ will require the vascular tree. So, we’ll put those functional tissues on top of the vascular system; vascular tree, once that first step is successful.
Dr. Linda Austin: How many years do you anticipate this project will go on?
Dr. Roger Markwald: The project didn’t come overnight. It has been in progress for about five years. This is, really, in a way, for me personally, and for my colleagues here at MUSC, the icing on a cake. From other programs, they’ve allowed us to develop the bioprinting technology and the stem cell technologies that will be the underpinning of this grant. There’s been a good five to ten years of hard work understanding the principles of developmental biology, stem cell biology, nanotechnology, and bioprinting to reach this point.
I envision this will be a decade-long project. And it will be successful at some levels. We hope it will be at the organ level. But, even if we don’t achieve organ level replacements, there is enough probability of success that we’ll be able to engineer what’s being called biochips. These are three dimensional tissues that are vascularized. They’ll be given to patients that have failing organs. These individuals, if given more time and someone else to shoulder some of the load that the organs are supposed to perform, will be given more time to heal. I see the biochip prospects for tissue engineering more realistic in the next five years. And if that’s successful, then all the chips could come together and create a larger organ.
Dr. Linda Austin: Dr. Markwald, clearly, this is a huge step forward in our ability to pursue a scientific question. What other sorts of benefits will come from our receiving this grant?
Dr. Roger Markwald: Indeed, the science and, hopefully, the health issues that can come about are very important. But, not to be minimalized, or forgotten, are the opportunities for education and economic development. One of the goals of any National Science Foundation grant is the goal to broaden participation of your research: to the lay community, to the academic communities. And one of the most exciting parts of this project is the economic and educational benefits. The two are very closely tied together. The educational programs, hopefully, will create a stronger, more knowledge-based work force that will help to expand our economy.
The tissues that we’re creating right now are being commercially transported through companies that are able to freeze the tissue and send it to other sites. So, it’s stimulating a number of economic opportunities. But, I think the economy is going to be greatly advantaged by the educational outreach.
We’ll be developing a graduate program in biotechnology at South Carolina State University. There are going to be website training programs. Our faculty in the Regenerative Medicine & Cell Biology department will be going to other colleges and universities to discuss stem cell technology and training faculty and students in the technologies related to tissue engineering, and hopefully creating a pipeline, and bridges, between our universities to promote graduate education. And, with a little bit of success, I think we’ll see the boat race for the whole state.
Dr. Linda Austin: Many congratulations to you and your colleagues.
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