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6 “firsts” in advancing regenerative medicine toward patient care

 A statewide bipartisan initiative is transforming health care from a focus on treating disease to one of tapping the body’s ability to heal itself. Regenerative Medicine Minnesota is a legislative initiative aimed at improving health by advancing regenerative medicine in research, technology, education and patient care across the state.

Minnesotans statewide struggle with chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and arthritis that reduce their quality of life and cost the health care system millions of dollars. Regenerative medicine focuses on using the body’s ability to heal itself — replacing, repairing, and restoring damaged or missing organs and tissues to health. There is a critical need to ensure that Minnesotans have access to safe and effective treatments.

Every June, scientists, physicians, educators and other health care providers who have received one of the 161 grants awarded through this initiative, meet to share their cutting-edge work and find strategic collaborations to accelerate it. At the 2019 Regenerative Medicine Minnesota annual meeting in Rochester, co-chairs Andre Terzic, M.D., Ph.D., director of Mayo Clinic Center for Regenerative Medicine and Jakub Tolar, M.D., Ph.D., dean of the Medical School and vice president for Clinical Affairs at the University of Minnesota, will highlight the effects Regenerative Medicine Minnesota will have on the state. This year’s annual meeting will be held on Monday, June 17, in Rochester.

“Regenerative Medicine Minnesota is laying the platform on which education, industry and medical science are coming together to build the health care of the future. Minnesota is becoming recognized as the Silicon Valley of regenerative medicine,” says Dr. Terzic. “This investment has led to tangible advancements in regenerative sciences, translation of new knowledge and the rollout of clinical trials to offer patients hope of new regenerative solutions to improve their health.”

“We are putting Minnesota at the forefront of introducing regenerative therapies into clinical practice,” adds Dr. Tolar. “Regenerative Medicine Minnesota has taken a novel approach to reaching these goals, developing a pipeline that integrates everything from developing new therapies, to recruiting and retaining the highly trained workforce of the future needed to administer these therapies, to building the industry’s capacity to produce them.”

Regenerative Medicine Minnesota awards $4.35 million in grants every year. Funding is open to Minnesota-based institutions. Since its inception in 2014, Regenerative Medicine Minnesota has awarded 161 grants totaling $21.9 million.

Dr. Tolar and Dr. Terzic noted six examples of how this grant-funded research may one day transform clinical practice:

  • Performing fetal surgery to correct underdeveloped lungs

Regenerative Medicine Minnesota grant is funding a clinical trial for prenatal surgery to promote lung growth before babies are born. Rodrigo Ruano, M.D., Ph.D., a Mayo Clinic obstetrician and gynecologist, has performed four in utero surgeries on fetuses with a life-threatening disorder known as pulmonary hypoplasia as part of a clinical trial. This condition is caused by congenital diaphragmatic hernia in which fetal lungs are too small for babies to breathe on their own. The grant fosters the development of regenerative approaches to improve lung development and survival.

  • Growing replacement blood vessels for patients in need of coronary artery bypass

A patient with a severe heart blockage who needs a second bypass may no longer have a spare vessel that can be used for the surgery, and tissue-engineered arteries lack the cellular lining needed to reduce the risk of blood clots. Professor Robert Tranquillo, Ph.D., a University of Minnesota biomedical engineer in the College of Science and Engineering, is developing a high-speed method of using a patient’s stem cells to “seed” the surface of a bioengineered blood vessel developed in his lab that creates a cell lining and quickly makes it ready for surgical implantation.

  • Building a new liver to function like a human organ

A liver transplant can mean the difference between life and death for some patients. Often, patients die before they find a suitable donor. With a research grant from Regenerative Medicine Minnesota, Scott Nyberg, M.D., Ph.D., a Mayo Clinic transplantation surgeon, is building an artificial liver and studying whether it could function similar to a kidney dialysis machine, performing critical bodily functions while the liver regenerates. Dr. Nyberg will study if the artificial liver can bridge the gap until a donor liver becomes available or if it could help the patient avoid the need for a transplant altogether.

  • Assisting transplant recovery

Shernan Holtan, M.D., a University of Minnesota hematologist and oncologist, treats patients with leukemias and other cancers for which bone marrow transplant is a common and effective therapy. Her research focuses on recovery from transplants, particularly when the donor is a less-than-perfect match. A common complication of bone marrow transplant is graft-versus-host disease, in which the immune system from the donor can attack the patient’s tissues, particularly skin and mucus membranes. Dr. Holtan’s research examines how to speed up the recovery of tissue damage from these immune attacks.

  •  Researching regenerative therapies for spinal cord injuries

Regenerative Medicine Minnesota grant funded an early study by Mohamad Bydon, M.D., a Mayo Clinic neurologic surgeon, on the safety and feasibility of stem cell injections to treat spinal cord injury. The stem cells are derived from a patient’s fat cells and injected into patients through a procedure known as a lumbar puncture. Investigators collected cerebrospinal fluid on all the patients as part of this clinical trial to discover different biological markers of spinal cord injury amenable for repair. New biological markers are important because they can help identify the critical processes that lead to spinal cord injury at a cellular level and potentially can lead to new regenerative therapies.

  • Engineering cells to regenerate heart tissue

This Regenerative Medicine Minnesota grant seeks to advance research into whether stem cells can repair damaged heart tissue. The research of Associate Professor Michael McAlpine, Ph.D., a University of Minnesota mechanical engineer in the College of Science and Engineering aims to take a significant step forward by creating a 4D printed system to deliver the biochemicals that tell stem cells where to go, when to grow, and what kind of cells to develop into so that they can regenerate specific kinds of tissues in the heart in an orchestrated manner.

“Regenerative Medicine Minnesota is one of the most important investments Minnesota has made in the health care of our citizens. In just five years, new discoveries are moving from the laboratory to clinical trials where they will be validated as new therapies to address the growing epidemic of chronic diseases,” says Rep. Tony Albright, R-Prior Lake, a sponsor of the legislation that funds Regenerative Medicine Minnesota.

“Regenerative Medicine Minnesota has not only met, but it has exceeded the expectations we’ve had for this initiative. Minnesota is leading the way in moving regenerative medicine into the practice. This initiative bolsters Minnesota’s reputation as a global leader in regenerative health care and innovator in the medical device industry,” says Sen. Richard Cohen, D-St. Paul, chair of the conference committee that passed the funding proposal for Regenerative Medicine Minnesota.

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