The Minnesota Legislature two years ago made a down payment on hopes that the state could become a leader in the field of regenerative medicine – the practice of using a patient’s own stem cells to not just treat but hopefully cure a host of chronic conditions such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease.
In 2014 it approved a bill allocating $50 million over a 10-year period to back regenerative medical research in the state. The measure established an entity called Regenerative Medicine Minnesota (RMM) to make awards and coordinate the effort. Its board is chaired by Dr. Jakub Tolar, director of the University of Minnesota’s Stem Cell Institute, and Dr. Andre Terzic, director of the Mayo Clinic Center for Regenerative Medicine; its award decisions are made by an independent group of out-of-state scientific peer reviewers.
In addition to the medical and humanitarian goals of finding cures for the most vexing and widespread illnesses in the world, there’s also an economic development goal: State leaders want to leverage Minnesota’s existing biotech expertise to grab a part of the quickly expanding global regenerative medicine market, which is expected to grow by more than 20 percent to $50 billion by 2020.
One of the six RMM award categories is for “Bio-business Development.” These grants are the most directly aimed at the commercial prospects of regenerative medicine, and are meant specifically for developing “products, devices and services” in the field. Because the RMM program is so new, the return-on-investment is still theoretical, but the hoped-for result is new jobs and near-future business creation or expansion.
After handing out its first grants last year, RMM this month honored its 2016 winners with a ceremony at the University of Minnesota. So far, $1.17 million in bio-business category grants have been awarded.
What follows is a look at several of the newest bio-business grantees, whose efforts have been cited for their potential to help Minnesota grow a regenerative medicine industry cluster.
Amir Naqwi, MSP Corp., $99,960
Naqwi is director of research for Shoreview-based MSP Corp., a global, applied aerosol/particle technology company. It designs, develops and manufactures scientific instruments and equipment for research and industrial applications, with special expertise in micro/nano particles.
MSP’s founder is University of Minnesota Regents professor of mechanical engineering Benjamin Y.H. Liu, a renowned educator and inventor who established the U of M as a prominent center for the study of aerosols and particles. Over the years, Liu’s research on fine particles and micro-contaminants have had many applications, including everything from space travel to studying atmospheric pollutants.
Regenerative medicine is now being added to the list with Naqwi’s project at MSP.
He and some colleagues are working to develop a device that will spray the walls of human lung scaffolding, maintained in a bioreactor, with stem cells, nutrients, and other agents to help successfully regenerate lung tissue. RMM deemed this work “an important step toward the development of a bioengineered lung for use in transplant.”
Zeeshan Syedain, University of Minnesota, $100,000
Syedain, a senior researcher at the U of M known for his work with Robert Tranquillo on bioengineering blood vessels and heart valves, is also a leading figure when it comes to designing bioreactors – devices used to grow human cells.
He gained experience in that field through his work with Tranquillo, head of the U’s bioengineering department. They are researching how to use stem cells to produce replacement heart valves for the 100,000 Americans each year who need them. That total includes thousands of children who are born without a separate artery from the heart to the lungs -- a severe condition that requires repair early in life and may require multiple open-heart surgeries as they outgrow the repair.
Syedain is developing new kinds of bioreactors to solve key problems in producing regenerated blood vessels. The RMM grant is aimed at funding his efforts to build a bioreactor that will meet “good manufacturing practices” standards for making tissue-engineered vascular grafts for pediatric use.
With such a tool, doctors can culture these grafts to meet the standards required for them to be used in humans. If the bioreactor method is successful, RMM says, these bioengineered blood vessels could have many other uses, as well.
Kent Vilendrer, ST3 Development Corp., $99,890
Like Zeeshan Syedain, Kent Vilendrer is in the bioreactor field, and is similarly working on developing a device that can be used to bioengineer human organs and tissues in a way that is sufficiently reliable for large-scale use in human patients.
Vilendrer is the longtime CEO of Eden Prairie-based Medical Device Testing Services, which, as its name implies, performs fatigue and durability testing for the medical device industry. But he is also an inventor and the holder of several patents under his ST3 Development Corp., including some that are related to regenerative medicine.
Among his inventions are a “deformable transportable bioreactor chamber,” which provides for the “seeding, culturing, testing, and transporting a bio-sample without removing the sample from a sterile chamber of the apparatus,” according to its patent award.
Now RMM has awarded Vilendrer a grant to develop a “regenerative medicine bioreactor drive system,” which its describes as a computer system that could operate bioreactors producing engineered heart valves, automatically monitoring and adjusting the flow of fluids to ensure that the valves develop correctly.