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 a new cutting-edge campus in Greenville.

Naren Vyavahare works with a student in a lab at Clemson University.

Naren Vyavahare works with a student in a lab at Clemson University.

The money comes from a National Institutes of Health program that supports the nationwide Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE).  The one at Clemson is called the South Carolina Bioengineering Center of Regeneration and Formation of Tissues (SC BioCRAFT).

The grant was the largest from the NIH in university 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 will also 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 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 get new people in.

“This is a unique program to help early career investigators to 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,” Clemson University President James P. 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 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.

Dr. Roger Markwald

Dr. Roger Markwald

“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 the main campus. But the new round of funding will funnel more research to Clemson University Biomedical Engineering Campus (CUBEInC) at Greenville Hospital System’s Patewood Medical Campus.

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.

The first round of COBRE funding helped make CUBEInC possible, and the second round will take it to the next level, said John Ballato, Clemson’s vice president for economic development.

“An $11-million grant is a game-changer,” he said. “That level of funding allows us to attract and retain the kind of talent the state needs to grow its portfolio of med-tech businesses. Jobs in the field start at $60,000 to $80,000.”

Clinical mentors, including Eugene Langan, M.D. and Thomas Pace, M.D. from GHS, will help junior faculty keep their research clinically relevant.

“We can help faculty stay focused on critical, real-world healthcare needs and improving patient care,” Langan said. “As physicians, we treat patients daily, allowing us a front-row view of what’s needed in the field.”

Researchers at the center are focused on a branch of study called “translational research.” The emphasis is on practical research with a high probability that it can be taken from the lab bench to the patient’s bedside.

“SC BioCRAFT researchers are improving health, one of the 21st century’s grand challenges,” said Anand Gramopadhye, dean of the College of Engineering and Science.

“The high-impact medical technology they are developing could lead to therapies and cures that help patients around the world. And having the research in Greenville means that it could help create high-paying jobs here in South Carolina.

“Securing second-phase funding from NIH reflects on the leadership and the high quality of research the team delivers.”

In its first five years, the center has helped support and mentor 13 junior faculty members who have collectively received more than $10 million in external funding and published 151 journal articles. The center also helped the university recruit three junior and two senior faculty members.

The Clemson Light Imaging Facility was installed in the main campus’ Life Sciences Facility as part of the first round of funding. The facility houses several advanced-light microscopes, cell sorting equipment, a specimen preparation laboratory and a 20-seat classroom.

“We did very well in phase one,” said Martine LaBerge, who is chair of Clemson’s bioengineering department. “We will build on our success in phase two.”

The National Institutes for Health lists nearly 100 COBRE centers nationwide, including seven in South Carolina. Each focuses on a different area of health, ranging from colon cancer to pediatric research.

Clemson’s center is the only one focused on bioengineering.

The university’s history in the field goes back more than 50 years, making it one of the world’s oldest and most experienced bioengineering departments.

The university’s bioengineering department played a key role in the foundation of The Society for Biomaterials, a leading professional society. The department, originally called interdisciplinary studies, granted  its first Ph.D. degree in 1963.

“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.”

Junior faculty who are participating in the second phase are Jeffrey Anker, Jeoung Soo Lee, Ying Mei, Agneta Simionescu and Chip Norris.

“SC BioCRAFT is on the cutting-edge of research,” said Tanju Karanfil, associate dean for research and graduate studies in the College of Engineering and Science.

“With the work our researchers have done and the phase-two funding in hand, Clemson and our partners are well-positioned to strengthen the bioengineering and regenerative medicine community in the state and nationally.”

Dr. David J. Cole, president of MUSC, said, “This NIH funding for our Clemson-MUSC collaboration in bioengineering and regenerative medicine is very exciting. Our vision is to not only continue to support the development of talented young scientists and our biotechnology industry within the state, but to provide an environment that will fundamentally change patient care of the future.”

University officials saw the grant as an opportunity to highlight the Clemson-GHS research collaboration.

Both organizations work collectively to leverage existing research and education expertise at Clemson with the clinical opportunities offered by GHS, one of the largest healthcare systems in the Southeast.

Clemson’s health-related research and education programs are key to the partnership. With nursing and health science programs and other disciplines such as bioengineering and genetics that have tangible health implications, the collaboration will help develop Clemson’s health related initiatives.

“This is an incredible example of the collaborative impact of research,” said Windsor Westbrook Sherrill, PhD., interim associate vice president for health research at Clemson University and interim chief science officer at GHS.

“The COBRE award recognizes Clemson’s long-term research collaboration with both GHS and MUSC.

“GHS clinical mentors have a proven track record in working closely with Clemson faculty to develop research programs which are clinically relevant and have the potential to transform care.  Through the GHS Clinical University, the unique partnership between Clemson bioengineering faculty and GHS surgeons provides an opportunity for research to be truly informed by patient needs.”

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Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Institute Of General Medical Sciences

of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number 2P20GM103444-06. The content is solely the

responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National

Institutes of Health.