Medtronic partners with U for stem cell research

Dylan Thomas

The University has partnered with the Medtronic Foundation to combine stem cell and biomedical engineering research that might allow diseased hearts to heal through regeneration.

The Academic Health Center senior vice preisdent, Frank Cerra, said the $1.1 million Medtronic grant will be used to hire a leading scientist to coordinate the research, which will attempt to find ways to use stem cells in the treatment and prevention of cardiovascular disease.

He said the project will combine cutting-edge research being done at the University’s Stem Cell Institute and the department of biomedical engineering.

“This opens up the door to take this new stem cell technology and package it with delivery devices that can make regeneration of heart muscle a reality,” Cerra said.

The program will be supported by $6.4 million in funding – $5.3 million that Medtronic has donated to University projects since 1987, and the additional $1.1 million it will contribute over the next five years.

Cerra said the research is especially important because chronic congestive heart failure is one of the largest medical problems in the United States and the world.

A key factor in the project is finding a qualified scientist to fill the Bakken Chair in Cardiovascular Repair, which has been vacant for more than three years, Cerra said. The chair holder will merge the stem cell and biomedical engineering programs and lead research.

A strong connection between the two departments is important for the project’s success. While the Stem Cell Institute would research the biological processes that would lead to advances in cardiovascular care, it is the biomedical engineering side that develops the technologies to use the new techniques.

Dr. Jeffrey McCullough, director of the Biomedical Engineering Institute and a chair search committee member, said the chair holder will be a leading researcher in the field combining stem cell and biomedical engineering research and will have a good track record of publishing in journals and obtaining research grants.

“This is a very important and major chair within the medical school, so we expect to be able to attract a national leader in this area,” McCullough said.

The chair is named for Earl Bakken, who founded Medtronic in 1949, then worked with University surgeons to develop the first transistorized wearable pacemaker in 1957. Now retired and living in Hawaii, it was Bakken’s pacemaker that was largely responsible for building the company’s reputation.

Medtronic partnership

Bob Hanvik, Medtronic spokesman, said the company has two goals in its partnership with the University.

“First, we want to focus our partnership on new ways for physicians to treat cardiovascular disease. (Second), we want to position the state as a leader in the evolution of new medical technologies,” Hanvik said.

He said the University is a good partner for Medtronic because of their 50-year history together and the University’s strength in cardiovascular research.

McCullough said it may seem odd that Medtronic – a company that develops medical devices – would support this kind of research at the University. However, both he and Cerra pointed out that Medtronic will not directly profit from University research.

“As you’re developing the stem cell capacity and you’re developing the delivery devices, whatever results from that is the new technology that includes the delivery system and whatever is being delivered to the damaged heart,” Cerra said.

That technology will become University intellectual property, and could be licensed to companies that will develop the technology. Medtronic would not be favored over any other medical device manufacturer in the bidding for those licenses, though they would benefit from the advances in the field.

“They wanted to support research at the University that capitalizes on the University’s strengths, but also is in an area that may have long-term future implications for the cardiovascular system,” McCullough said. This could be beneficial for a company that built its reputation on a pacemaker.

However, any real-world application of these techniques may be a long way off. McCullough said the project will focus on basic research because the field is new and little is known about how to convert the research into clinical practice.

“If there’s a commercial product in there, at this point, we don’t even know what it would be,” McCullough said.


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