Students research with local cardiovascular and orthopedic surgeons to improve quality of life
By Peter Hull
To walk through Clemson’s Patewood bioengineering laboratories is to stand at the leading edge of science. It’s innovation at its best — a place where Clemson research will improve the quality of life for countless patients.
The Clemson University Biomedical Engineering Innovation Campus, or CUBEInC, opened in December. The state-of-the-art laboratory at Greenville Hospital System’s (GHS) Patewood campus is where Clemson faculty and students work in some of medicine’s most complex fields, from tissue regeneration to joint replacement.
Faculty collaborate with cardiovascular and orthopedic surgeons across the hospital system and expose their students to the highest levels of research.
At the heart of regenerative medicine
In the Laboratory for Regenerative Medicine at Patewood, Dan Simionescu and his students collaborate with GHS cardiovascular and orthopedic surgeons, and other clinicians. Together, they work in a world that sounds more like science fiction that just plain science.
Clemson’s depth of research and the clinical expertise of GHS are the perfect complement, Simionescu says. Working on the same campus, in many cases just floors apart, sparks dialogue.
The Patewood labs are an extension of research at Clemson’s bioengineering department on the main campus. The work at Patewood transfers research and engineering to clinical applications.
And it’s often on the clinical side where many of Patewood’s projects begin.
One such project that came out of this collaboration with clinicians was a request by a GHS vascular surgeon who needed a very long vascular graft for leg surgery. The surgeon challenged Simionescu’s team to make an artificial graft that could be used on patients.
“I think that’s the way bioengineering should work,” says Simionescu. “You have to engage with clinicians to find out what they need. It’s very difficult to sit on the main campus, for example, and imagine what they might require.”
At the center of Clemson’s mission is its students, and at Patewood there is no exception.
Ph.D. candidate Lee Sierad and Jeremy Mercuri, who received a doctoral degree from Clemson in December, are at the heart of Patewood’s research — in more ways than one.
Sierad, who specializes in cardiovascular tissue engineering, researches ways to repair damaged or diseased human tissue using the body’s own adult stem cells. He works with aortic roots, which contain the aortic valve — retrieved from pigs and other animals — to literally grow human cells on the root.
The intent is that the root can be transplanted in a patient with a heart valve defect and stand a better chance of not being rejected by the body. The root will contain the patient’s own adult stem cells, which the body may not consider “foreign.”
Mercuri specializes in orthopedic regenerative medicine. He works side-by-side with surgeons at the Steadman Hawkins clinic, located two floors down from the Patewood research labs.
His primary focus is to improve patient care through engineering cartilage and tendon tissue using adult stem cells in combination with biomaterials that mimic native tissue architecture.
Building a better joint replacement
In addition to Simionescu’s lab, Patewood houses one of the country’s largest stores of post-use total joint replacements: hip, knee and other artificial joints that were removed from patients, in some cases after 15 years or more of use.
John DesJardins directs the Frank H. Stelling and C. Dayton Riddle Orthopaedic Education and Research Laboratory. He and his team study and catalog how joint replacements have performed over the years, such as how different materials wear out during natural movements of the body.
Bioengineering’s newest assistant professor, Melinda Harman, has recently joined in this implant retrieval effort and brings more than 10 years of implant retrieval research experience to Clemson.
Clemson’s research is used by manufacturers to improve their products, leading to fewer repeat total-joint replacement procedures. Such advances help reduce medical costs and spare patients a return to what often is painful and invasive surgery.
“Essentially, we’re trying to improve the entire procedure,” says DesJardins. “We’re trying to make these joints last longer and longer, because they’re like highly engineered car tires — they eventually will wear out.”
Win-win-win for students, state, patients
Clemson’s new 30,000-square-foot research facility at Patewood houses 10 laboratories, plus offices and conference areas. More than 100 faculty, staff and students will use the laboratories as Clemson adds another dimension to its bioengineering degree programs.
For example, DesJardins supervises 65 bioengineering students who are visiting the hospital campus as part of their senior year design projects. The students are working with clinicians to design new medical technology, tools and devices to improve the health care of patients. During two semesters, the students will identify needs and design potential solutions.
Also in the facility, bioengineering professor David Kwartowitz runs four fully equipped ultrasound rooms where he works with students to study, among other conditions, why people suffer rotator cuff tears.
In collaboration with the Steadman Hawkins Clinic of the Carolinas and Proaxis Therapy, Kwartowitz is working with eight Clemson undergraduate and graduate students to gather data on how and why patients experience the condition.
Martine LaBerge, chair of the bioengineering department at Clemson and Patewood’s director, says, “As the go-to organization in Upstate South Carolina for medicine and surgery, GHS is a wonderful partner for Clemson. When these areas of expertise are combined, there exists real opportunity to make a difference in the quality of life for the people of our state.”
Breakthroughs from this partnership at Patewood will not only improve health care but also help fuel the economy through patents, small business startups and other economic development.
And as an added benefit, the partnership makes the Clemson degree even more valuable.
For more information about Clemson’s Patewood bioengineering laboratories, please contact Martine LaBerge at email@example.com or 864-656-5557.