Engineering Research Center established through $26 million National Science Foundation award could prove to be a game-changer for transplantation, cellular therapies, biodiversity

The National Science Foundation has awarded a $26 million grant to an ambitious collaboration involving the Massachusetts General Hospital’s Center for Engineering in Medicine and Surgery (CEMS) to establish an engineering research center (ERC) that will develop, refine and expand technologies to “stop biologic time” by preserving, stabilizing and suspending living material. Co-led by Mass General and the University of Minnesota’s Institute for Engineering in Medicine, which will serve as the center’s administrative home, the ERC also includes the University of California, Riverside and the University of California, Berkeley as core collaborators.

The new ERC—the Advanced Technologies for the Preservation of Biological Systems (ATP-Bio)—seeks to develop breakthrough bioengineering technologies that protect and prolong the viability of cells, tissues, organs and even entire organisms. “Such paradigm-shifting biopreservation technologies we will be developing in the coming decade could have significant health and societal benefits,” says Mehmet Toner, PhD, co-director of CEMS and a member of the National Academy of Engineering, who will serve as deputy director of the new ERC and principal investigator of the effort for Mass General.

Each of the four collaborating institutions in the ATP-Bio brings specific expertise and resources to bear on the challenges that will be undertaken through the center. At Mass General, a group of investigators will focus on such issues as improved techniques for cryopreservation (chilling of tissue) and vitrification (rapidly freezing living matter to temperatures below -300° F) to maximize cell, tissue and organ preservation and minimize injury and toxicity associated with extreme cooling.

Martin Yarmush, MD, PhD, founding director of CEMS and a member of the National Academy of Engineering who is co-leading the biological engineering effort for the ERC, says that the potential to make a significant impact on the field of transplantation is exhilarating. “Through this innovative alliance, we are looking to make the kind of game-changing leaps that could save and improve lives around the globe by increasing the quality and durability of organs and tissues for transplantation or being able to sustain and ship fragile life-saving cells,” he says.

Co-leading the organ preservation work in the center will be Korkut Uygun, PhD, a CEMS faculty member who brings to the collaboration expertise in biopreservation techniques and organ reengineering and revitalization. “We expect the work at the center to help provide a means of banking cells and tissues that could be stockpiled for such uses as mass casualties or be available for long-term space travel,” Uygun says. “We also will be looking at ways to protect, scale up and transport aquatic embryos that could help feed the world through sustainability and preservation of vital food sources.”

Toner sees the ERC as becoming a sort of “Amazon of living things,” as the collective expertise of the collaborators enables new and better means of storage, transportation and delivery of living material to manage supply chain where and when it is most needed—whether whole organs for transplantation, CAR-T cells for cancer treatment, stem cells for regenerative medicine, or fish and shrimp embryos for aquaculture seeding. 

A major focus of the ATP-Bio will be to offer inspiring educational programs and research opportunities to students from middle school through college at all four collaborator sites, with a goal of increasing the diversity of students and professionals in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. In the Boston area, the Mass General team will work with Dearborn STEM Academy in Roxbury as well as with the youth scholar programs through Mass General’s Center for Community Health Improvement. Summer internships will be available for students over 18 to gain experience in a laboratory setting, and a wide range of research internships will be available to undergraduate college students.

John Bischof, PhD, director of the Institute for Engineering in Medicine at the University of Minnesota and a professor of mechanical engineering and biomedical engineering there—who did his post-doctoral work with Toner at Mass General—will serve as director of ATP-Bio. Beyond the two lead institutions and the two collaborating core institutions, the ATP-Bio will benefit from the involvement of 30 senior scientists from institutions across the United States and Canada, as well as more than 50 companies and organizations, ranging from biomedical and pharmaceutical companies to aquaculture organizations, organ and tissue procurement organizations, venture capital firms, and scientific and industrial societies.

Mass General is the first hospital to be a core member of an ERC in the National Science Foundation’s program. The five-year NSF grant is renewable after five years.

The Center for Engineering in Medicine and Surgery at Mass General aims to bring the principles and tools of biomedical engineering to the forefront of biomedical research and patient care through cutting-edge research and training of MDs, PhDs, and predoctoral students. Part of the Mass General Department of Surgery, the center has faculty with expertise and interests ranging from molecular biology and biochemistry to engineering design and analysis.

About the Massachusetts General Hospital
Massachusetts General Hospital, founded in 1811, is the original and largest teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School. The Mass General Research Institute conducts the largest hospital-based research program in the nation, with an annual research budget of more than $1 billion and comprises more than 8,500 researchers working across more than 30 institutes, centers and departments. In August 2020 the MGH was named #6 in the nation by U.S. News & World Report in its list of “America’s Best Hospitals.”