Elastin is a protein in our circulatory system, organs and muscles that allows skin, lungs, and ligaments to stretch and contract, and helps arteries propagate blood flow. A product of biological synthesis, elastin forms when molecules of tropoelastin undergo a chemical reaction and develop cross-linked arrays. Several years ago, a team of scientists lead by cardiologist Dr. Kenton Gregory, MD, working at the Oregon Medical Laser Center at Providence St. Vincent’s (now part of Oregon Health Science University), began an unlikely collaboration with Dr. Carl Wamser, Professor of Chemistry Emeritus at Portland State University. That collaboration led to a method for synthesizing tropoelastin molecules in the lab and cross-linking them in arrays to create elastic polymers.
Equipped with a biomimetic method for producing elastin, bioengineers will soon have the tools necessary for generating biomaterials that could help doctors overcome many pressing medical issues. Once such issue is biocompatibility. Every year thousands of patients undergo surgeries such as hip replacements, having stents placed into arteries to improve blood flow, or receiving pacemakers. In many cases the human body produces an auto-immune response when foreign objects, such as surgical devices, are introduced. Using methods developed by Dr. Gregory and Dr. Wamser, these surgical devices could be coated with a solid polymer film of elastin that the human body may be less likely to reject. Other potential applications of this technology include novel drug delivery methods, the production of block copolymers for use in semiconductor arrays, or surgical cosmetic implants.
The collaboration between Dr. Gregory and Dr. Wamser began with their shared interest in two unrelated fields. “Ken Gregory was really interested in my work in solar energy and so he invited me to give a talk at the Oregon Medical Laser Center,” Dr. Wamser said. “Most of the work they did at the Center was in clinical laser photochemistry and bioengineering applications. Of course, my work with solar energy is completely different from that, but we realized we also had a shared interest in polymers and that was how the project got started.”
Soon after that meeting one of Dr. Wamser’s graduate students, Brian Kim, a polymer engineer working on polymers for solar cells, became involved with the project. Their goal was to create a biomimetic polymer film that could be used to coat surgical implants, reducing the risk of auto-immune reactions.
“It was important to develop a flexible polymer,” Dr. Wamser said. “The material had to be flexible so that it would stretch around a stent without breaking or tearing as the stent was inflated. Tropoelastin was a natural choice of materials: it can create a flexible polymer film that occurs naturally in our skin. What we did was to find a biomimetic approach to stitching together the smaller tropoelastin molecules into a flexible polymer.”
The office of Innovation and Intellectual Property’s (IIP) involvement with this project began after Providence licensed the technology to the Oregon Biomedical Engineering Institute (OBEI). “OBEI recognized that as Dr. Wamser was a co-inventor, they needed a license from PSU as well,” said Joe Janda, Director of IIP. “We worked with OBEI to make sure the license we crafted was compatible with Providence’s, and that it reinforced the goals associated with getting the technology out of the lab and into the hands of doctors where it could be of use. While we’re a side-partner on this project, we’re proud to have PSU’s research involved in the development of a life-saving technology.”
Often times, collaborations lead to accomplishments and this is certainly the case with this exciting technology. A mutual interest in solar power leads to a novel method of using and producing synthetic polymer films that can increase biocompatibility for patients undergoing a variety of surgical procedures. Two major institutions can come together with the goal of seeing that important innovation in bioengineering and biomaterials make it into the hands of doctors. Whatever the case may be, IPP is here to work with PSU innovators and their collaborators, whether they are PSU students, faculty, staff members, or partners from external institutions to promote the use and increase the impact of PSU innovations.