MINNEAPOLIS – Robert Tranquillo came to the University of Minnesota in 1987 with a doctorate in chemical engineering and a budding interest in the mechanical forces that help wounds heal.
Today, he and his research team stand at the brink of a medical breakthrough – engineering replacement parts for the human circulatory system – and he can just about see the culmination of his life’s work: an assembly line of arteries and heart valves manufactured from human tissue.
Their novel manufacturing process, described in the latest issue of the Annals of Biomedical Engineering, could create promising new alternatives for the 90,000 American adults who need replacement heart valves every year.
And, for the 10,000 children who need a similar procedure, it may lead to valves that grow along with their young bodies.
“Our approach is very simple, and I’d say elegant,” Tranquillo said in a recent interview. “That’s why I stuck with it for 20 years, convinced that it’s going to work someday.”
The research journey that carried Tranquillo from wound mechanics to engineered heart valves illustrates the importance of plodding, basic science – and the way that serendipity sometimes rewards diligence.
Tranquillo, 56, says it was his high school calculus teacher who awakened his interest in science and mathematical models that describe the movement of cells.
After earning his doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania, Tranquillo spent a year at Oxford University in England, where a group of scientists was working on a mathematical theory to describe how embryos take shape based on mechanical interactions between cells and their surroundings.
That led him to research on how and why wounds close, and eventually to the pioneering work he and his research team have conducted at the university: a novel process that uses human cells to convert a Jell-O-like substance into body parts strong enough and flexible enough to implant into the human circulatory system.
Their work, which has attracted more than $13 million in federal grants over the years, has focused primarily on developing a pediatric heart valve that will grow along with the child’s body.
But along the way, Tranquillo said, they realized they had developed a viable alternative for adult implants that currently rely on pig valves or mechanical devices.
Tranquillo, who is now head of biomedical engineering at the university, began his work there by infusing skin cells, called fibroblasts, into gels containing collagen or fibrin, a protein involved in the formation of blood clots.
One of the first things his team aimed at, he said, was making an artery.
As a first step, Tranquillo’s lab team had to figure out how to convert the natural fibrin gel they were using, which had the consistency of Jell-O, into something strong enough to withstand the pressures of the circulatory system.
They initially used magnets to align the spaghetti-like network of “fibril” strands, which made the gel stiffer.
But other, parallel experiments showed that forces exerted by cells themselves did an even better job of aligning the fibrils.
Tranquillo beams as he considers the potential impact of his life’s work.
“From one person’s donation of skin you could probably have enough cells to treat thousands of patients,” he said.