Oct 21, 2011
NCAT ERC on track to revolutionize metallic biomaterials
North Carolina is emerging as a hub for nanobiotechnology by combining academic research, industrial skills and political will to kick start interdisciplinary collaborations and push breakthroughs to market. One of the stars of the show is Greensboro-based North Carolina A & T State University (NCAT), which was awarded Engineering Research Center status by the NSF in 2008. The appointment unlocked $20 million funding and has allowed NCAT and its partners to ramp up progress in areas such as craniofacial and orthopedic applications; cardiovascular devices; and responsive biosensors for implants. Three years on, it's time to catch up with center director Jagannathan Sankar to discover some of the early success stories and find out what it takes to revolutionize metallic biomaterials.
How have things changed since receiving the ERC award?
With NSF funding, we've been able to establish and sustain a highly focused effort on the research and development of resorbable biometallic devices. Today, we call on the dedicated expertise of 40 faculty, 46 graduate students, 11 post-doctoral students and 8 research staff across the member institutions of NCAT, the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Cincinnati as well as our global partner, Hannover Medical School.
Expertise includes basic materials science and engineering, biocompatibility and toxicity testing, new methods and sensor development, medical device development and clinical science. In addition, commercial applications of ERC research are supported through university tech transfer offices, entrepreneurs in residence, and an industrial advisory board comprised of both small and large companies in the medical device space.
How does the ERC fit into North Carolina's "ecosystem" for commercializing nanotechnology?
North Carolina has historically supported entrepreneurial activities through organizations such as the North Carolina Biotechnology Center. More recently, several Centers of Innovation have grown out of the Biotech Center, including the Center of Innovation for Nanotechnology (COIN) and IBILITI, a center focused on North Carolina's advanced medical technology community. The ERC is actively partnered with these groups, working to identify areas of research synergy between the ERC and North Carolina businesses as well as avenues to use ERC strengths and infrastructure to help advance North Carolina businesses. Similar efforts are under way in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.
A recent example of success in community support and outreach is the research collaboration between the ERC and OrthoKinetic Technologies, a North Carolina-based consulting and testing firm dedicated to evaluating safety and performance of medical devices in the orthopedic and neurosurgical space. The collaboration, focused on spinal applications of ERC technology, is supported by an NSF-SBIR grant to OrthoKinetic Technologies and the ERC. The path to commercialization for medical devices is lengthy, expensive and risky. Typically, small companies play the vital role of de-risking opportunities for further investment by larger commercial players. While the ERC is seeking commercialization partnerships across the full spectrum of the medical device community, we fully anticipate that at least some of the early efforts to advance ERC technology will involve partnerships with existing small companies or university spin-offs.
The award also includes international technical and outreach partners. Can you tell us more about the centre's links overseas and the expertise that this brings?
The ERC has a key international partnership with Hannover Medical School's (Medizinischen Hochschule Hannover) laboratory for biomechanics and biomaterials. Frank Witte's team is a world leader in the resorbable magnesium space and brings his expertise, knowledge and global contacts to the ERC.
What's the focus over the next 12 months and beyond?
We're positioning the ERC as a global resource for those engaged in the research, development, regulatory approval and commercialization of metallic biomaterials and medical devices fashioned from these materials. Emphasis will be placed on expanding opportunities through education and partnership.
For example, we are initiating a relationship with ASM International to establish an open repository for physical, mechanical and biocompatibility data generated from the testing of magnesium and magnesium alloys. And of course, establishing partnerships directed toward the commercialization of ERC technology will continue to be a prime area of focus.
Also, in part due to NSF support of the ERC, NCAT has been able to expand its offerings to students to include a Bachelors of Science and Masters of Science degree in Bioengineering, with a Doctoral program pending approval. First graduates at the Bachelor's level are expected in May, 2013 and at the Master's level in the summer of 2012.
About the author
James Tyrrell is editor of nanotechweb.org and first visited North Carolina's Piedmont Triad, the area surrounding Greensboro, Winston-Salem and High Point, back in 2008 to coincide with the 3rd NC Nanotech conference (see – NC maps out its nanotechnology future).