Research money could help nurture state’s medical-technology industry
Clemson University has been awarded $11 million to expand a bioengineering center that helps mentor junior faculty members as they research how lab-grown tissue can treat some of the world’s most debilitating diseases, ranging from heart disease to spinal cord injuries.
Scientists expect the program will encourage an upward spiral that leads to more research dollars and helps boost the state’s growing medical-technology industry. Much of the center’s research will be done at the cutting-edge Patewood campus in Greenville.
The money comes from a National Institutes of Health (NIH) program that supports the Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) nationwide. The Clemson one is the South Carolina Bioengineering Center of Regeneration and Formation of Tissues (SC BioCRAFT).
Clemson University President James Clements made the announcement Wednesday, saying the grant is the largest from the NIH in the university’s history and brings the total NIH funding for the center to $20.3 million.
The $11 million will pay for maintaining and upgrading state-of-the-art facilities. It also will provide funds for five junior faculty to begin their research, said Naren Vyavahare, the SC BioCRAFT director and Hunter Endowed Chair of bioengineering.
The goal is to make the center self-sustaining, so that it can transition away from COBRE funding. Once the center is established, its researchers will be well-positioned to compete for funding from a range of federal and non-federal sources, Vyavahare said.
“This is seed money,” he said. “The whole idea behind the center is to fund and mentor junior faculty and make them successful. When they get their own major grant, we graduate them and bring new people in.
“This is a unique program to help early career investigators establish their research program quickly with the support of expert mentors and free access to world-class core facilities.”
Clemson researchers will collaborate with Dr. Roger Markwald of the Medical University of South Carolina, who is a co-principal investigator on the grant. Senior investigators Drs. Thomas Borg and Mark Kindy, both of MUSC, will provide biology expertise.
Support for the COBRE centers comes in three phases, each lasting five years. The new round of funding launches Clemson’s second phase. In the first phase, the university used the $9.3 million it received to start SC BioCRAFT.
Researchers at the center work on finding new ways to engineer cells and tissue to help the body function normally when someone gets sick or hurt. The field, regenerative medicine, holds the promise of eventually allowing scientists to grow vital organs in the lab for transplants.
“We’re on the right track,” President Clements said. “The NIH has invested more than $20 million in Clemson’s program since 2009. This level of funding is a great vote of confidence in our bioengineering faculty and their research.”
The funding strengthens the bond that Clemson and MUSC share through The Clemson-MUSC Joint Bioengineering Program.
A $60-million bioengineering building that recently opened on MUSC’s campus in Charleston houses the labs of five full-time Clemson faculty, including one involved in the grant.
“The new building and partnership underscore the growing statewide emphasis on bioengineering and regenerative medicine,” Markwald said. “Collaboration is key. We can accomplish more together than we can separately.”
SC BioCRAFT has been headquartered in Rhodes Engineering Research Center on Clemson’s main campus. The new round of funding will funnel more research to Clemson University Biomedical Engineering Campus (CUBEInC) at Greenville Health System’s Patewood Medical Campus.
Clinical mentors, including Eugene Langan, M.D. and Thomas Pace, M.D. from GHS, will help junior faculty keep their research clinically relevant.
CUBEInC opened nearly three years ago to serve as an economic engine that helps power the state’s medical technology industry. The campus’ 29,000 square feet includes world-class labs, a conference center and room for start-ups.
“It is gratifying that the NIH has recognized Clemson’s strength in bioengineering research,” said Larry Dooley, Clemson’s interim vice president for research. “The team at SC BioCRAFT has done very well in the first phase. It will be exciting to see what comes next.”