There were moments when the first Biomaterials Day at the Georgia Institute of Technology resembled a Vaudeville comedy routine, like when three of the top scientists in the field morphed into the Three Stooges for a few seconds while mugging for a photo, reflecting the festive side of an event that was part celebration, part jaw-dropping science. And even though the mood light, the slapstick was kept to a minimum – no one got hit in the face with a pie or poked in the eye – and it was smart people and their world-changing research that held center stage.
More than 160 students and faculty from more than 10 different universities descended on the Marcus Nanotechnology Building for last Friday’s sold-out event (Oct. 10), taking part in an all-day conference with the subtitle, “Next Generation Biomaterials,” which is appropriate, since it was the next generation of biomaterials scientists – Georgia Tech students – who organized the event. The setting also was appropriate.
“I honestly believe we are one of the strongest groups conducting biomaterials research, compared to anywhere in the world,” says Ravi Bellamkonda, who holds the endowed professorial chair and is the departmental chair in the Georgia Tech/Emory Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME).
“And our strength isn’t just in BME. It is wide-spread, including the Schools of Mechanical Engineering, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Materials Science and Engineering, Biology, and Chemistry,” Bellamkonda adds. “I can’t think of very many places with such depth and breadth researching materials and how they interact with biology and how they can be designed to make this an interaction that promotes healing and decreases scarring.”
Julia Babensee, associate professor of biomedical engineering in BME, who delivered the opening remarks, called the event, “a culmination of all of our biomaterials efforts. And I think getting the students involved and having an opportunity to present their work and hear about other people’s work in this area is really important. They represent the next generation of biomaterials experts.”
The short history of Biomaterials Day at Georgia Tech begins more than a year ago, when a group of bio-community grad students and faculty applied for a $5,000 grant from the Society for Biomaterials (SFB) with the idea of hosting an event.
“Other schools have hosted Biomaterials Day and SFB had actually been pushing Georgia Tech to form a student chapter for the society, because they wanted us to host one,” explains Olivia Burnsed, the grad student who served as the organizing chair for Biomaterials Day (with co-chair Travis Meyer). “We were granted the $5,000, but that definitely wasn’t enough to cover this event, so we applied for internal grants here at Georgia Tech.”
A combination of support from a variety of internal sources, such as the GT-FIRE (Fund for Transformative Research and Education) grant program, the College of Engineering, BME and the Parker H. Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience, as well as industry sponsors (BioSpherix, BOSE and 3M) paved the way for a full-day of programming that included faculty and student research presentations, a huge poster competition (more than 70 were on display), plenary speakers who happen to be among the top researchers in the field (Pat Stayton from the University of Washington and Kevin Healy from the University of California-Berkeley, two of the aforementioned faux stooges), and a post-event celebration of Bellamkonda’s winning of the Clemson Award, one of the most prestigious national honors in biomaterials research.
“I am humbled when I look at the list of winners from past years,” Bellamkonda says, “and I think of my students and post-docs and research staff who work hard and help make projects that are mere ideas, a reality that can potentially impact lives.”
Students and faculty representing Georgia Tech, Clemson, Auburn, Mercer and Morehouse made live presentations on a wide range of topics. Three Georgia Tech professors – Bellamkonda, Andrés García and Todd McDevitt – spoke about the research happening in their labs. Stayton spoke on the challenges, discoveries and opportunities for the next generations of researchers in the area of biomaterials science (biomaterials being any matter, surface or construct that interacts with biological systems).
“There’s been this incredible advancement in our understanding of disease from a fundamental biology standpoint, but somehow it hasn’t been translated yet into clinical benefits for people who need new therapies,” Stayton says. One of the main reasons for that, he explains, is because the workforce in the pharmaceutical world is mostly accustomed to working with small molecule drugs, or New Chemical Entities (NCEs), as opposed to biologics – modern biomolecular drugs derived through the processes of genetic engineering, manufactured in living systems.
“Newer categories of biologic drugs are important because they aren’t mechanistically limited by the same problems that small molecules have,” Stayton says. “But they require delivery in a way that small molecules don’t, so I posed it to the graduate students and post docs that this is an area where we really do need engineered biomaterials, and where we really need creative new approaches to designing drug carriers that could allow you to exploit these biologics in a new way.”
At the end of a day of live presentations on broad topics such as ‘rationally designed biomaterials’ and ‘biomaterials in industry’ and ‘biomaterials design for tissue repair’ and ‘stem cell-biomaterial interactions,’ Healy explained why biomaterials science is critical for patient-specific medicine, focusing on the problem of how to efficiently develop drugs.
“We want to make small, efficient micro-tissues, so the screening process can be economically robust and actually challenge the concept of expense that is currently being incurred in drug development,” says Healy, referring to the $5 billion-plus, and 10 years (or so) it takes to typically develop a new drug. His work is centered in human microphysiological systems, which could provide models for predicting the efficacy of new drugs in clinical trials (and also for predicting drug toxicities early in the development process).
Healy also echoed something Stayton said his remarks: “I think it’s fantastic that this is a student-run conference.”
Previous Biomaterials Days have been held at Clemson University, which obviously has a long history of expertise in the area (there’s the Clemson Award, after all). Clemson professor Bob Latour seemed impressed with Tech’s version of the event. “This is an excellent event, particularly for students, who get to hear and discuss the state of the art of what’s going in the biomaterials field, as well as hear from representatives from the biomaterials industry, and have a chance to show off their own work at the poster session,” says Latour, as he stands among the rows of posters.
Latour was one of the judges of the poster competition, which was won by Georgia Christopher Johnson (a grad student in García’s lab), whose poster was titled, “Bacteriophage Therapy to Reduce Bacterial Burden in Infected Bone Regenerative Implants.” Second place went to Marian Hettiaratchi (affiliated with the McDevitt lab and also the lab of Petit Institute Executive Director Bob Guldberg). Third place was shared by Amy Clark (also from García’s lab), and two Auburn grad students affiliated with Elizabeth Lipke’s lab, Petra Kersher and Shantanu Pradhan.
“You can never get enough of this kind of experience,” Clark says. “You sit through a lot of diverse talks, stuff that’s outside of your field, looking at what other researchers are doing. You always learn something new.”
With a new student chapter of SFB, and now the experience of having hosted some of the nation’s thought leaders in biomaterials, Georgia Tech has taken another step forward not only in a growing field of research, but in the propagation of student leadership.
“The other thing I like very much about Biomaterials Day is that it was organized in large part by our students,” Bellamkonda says. “I continued to be amazed at how articulate and independent they are, and how they so willingly give of their time to help build the wonderful community of scholars we have at Georgia Tech and Emory in this space.”