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Research team receives Pitt’s first NSF I-Corps grant to commercialize nerve regeneration technology

PITTSBURGH  (July 30, 2012) … A team from the University of Pittsburgh's  McGowan Institute of Regenerative Medicine  and Swanson School of Engineering's Department of Bioengineering are about to launch an intensive, six-month translational research effort to develop a commercialization strategy for a novel nerve regeneration treatment, thanks to a grant from the  National Science Foundation Innovation Corps (I-Corps)

The $50,000 grant will enable the research team to develop a business model for an effective long-gap peripheral nerve repair system with the potential to successfully repair conditions from diabetic neuropathy to battlefield wounds.

The NSF I-Corps program is a highly selective, year-old program and this marks the University's first I-Corps grant. Because the grant will help to develop the translational and commercialization aspects of the technology, the Pitt team is distinctively structured with an entrepreneurial component to match the NSF goals. Previous funding for this research had been provided by the NSF, the American Association of Hand Surgeons and the Department of Defense. 

The team is led by Principal Investigator  Kacey G. Marra, PhD , associate professor of plastic surgery and bioengineering; a core faculty member in the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine; and the Laboratory Director for the Plastic Surgery Research Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh. Founded in 2012, the Division of Plastic Surgery at Pitt's School of Medicine builds upon the University's cutting-edge research and technology, which has advanced clinical areas such as hand and face transplantation, nerve regeneration, and wound healing.

  Yen-chih Lin, PhD  serves as Entrepreneurial Lead and has worked in the Marra Laboratory for several years, and has extensive experience in nerve guide fabrication, microsphere fabrication for drug delivery, rat sciatic nerve defect models, non-human primate median nerve defect models, and histological analysis. 

The Industrial Mentor is Pratap Khanwilkar, PhD, MBA, Coulter Program Director and professor in the Swanson School of Engineering's Department of Bioengineering, and Executive-In-Residence with the University's Office of Technology Management. He has extensive experience in translating research into companies, having obtained seven patents and started six companies, with three operating and generating revenue. One start-up which Dr. Khanwilkar led as founder and CEO for 12 years evolved to a publicly-traded company.

"Nerve repair has improved over the past decade, but one of our challenges remains the regeneration of peripheral nerves over gaps greater than three centimeters," Dr. Marra explains. "Although a seemingly small distance, this represents a chasm that prevents effective treatment of many severed nerve conditions. Our translational research will lead to the development of a commercialization pathway of a biodegradable nerve guide to promote both motor and sensory nerve repair over these long gaps, and for potentially other applications of our proprietary technology. 

"Thanks to the NSF I-Corps grant, we'll be able to push our decade-long research toward a viable drug-delivery system and thereby address a serious unmet need for clinical care of diseased and damaged nerve tissue."

The team's research has advanced from small animal testing and is now being evaluated in larger animals as a precursor to human clinical trials, which Dr. Marra expects within two years.

About the NSF Innovation Corps 
The primary goal of the NSF I-Corps program is to foster entrepreneurship that will lead to the commercialization of technology that has been supported previously by NSF-funded research.
• The approach to entrepreneurship uses techniques developed to validate each commercial opportunity in a recognized, effective way: customer and business model development
• The vehicle for commercialization activities will most often be start-ups founded by the I-Corps participants; successful I-Corps projects will be prepared for business formation
• The I-Corps program is a feeder to the NSF Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs
• NSF will work with the private sector to bring additional resources to the table (in the form of partnerships and finance), when warranted

About the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine
To realize the vast potential of tissue engineering and other techniques aimed at repairing damaged or diseased tissues and organs, the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and University of Pittsburgh Medical Center established the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine. The McGowan Institute serves as a single base of operations for the university's leading scientists and clinical faculty working in the areas of tissue engineering, cellular therapies, and artificial and biohybrid organ devices. The Institute's mission includes the development of innovative clinical protocols as well as the pursuit of rapid commercial transfer of its technologies related to regenerative medicine. Also critical to the mission is the education and training of the next generation of scientists, clinicians and engineers who will be carrying the field forward toward the ultimate goal of patient benefit.

About the Swanson School of Engineering
The University of Pittsburgh's Swanson School of Engineering is one of the oldest engineering programs in the United States and is consistently ranked among the top 50 engineering programs nationally. The Swanson School has excelled in basic and applied research during the past decade and is on the forefront of 21st century technology including energy systems, bioengineering, micro- and nanosystems, computational modeling, and advanced materials development. Approximately 120 faculty members serve more than 2,600 undergraduate and graduate students and Ph.D. candidates in six departments, including Bioengineering, Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Industrial Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, and Materials Science. In 2010 the Swanson School was ranked second in North America by the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) for the percentage of doctoral degrees awarded to women. 


Contact: Paul Kovach