Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, once the epicenter of the U.S. steel industry, is transforming itself from a brown-field industrial town into a thriving life sciences hub.
Key features of this transformation include a linking of wound care clinics—statewide—into a research network; emphasizing industry and academic collaborations; integrating biological science with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning; and building out BioForge, a new biopharma manufacturing center on the banks of the Monongahela River.
The momentum is so great that Chandan Sen, PhD, and more than 30 researchers and lab personnel are moving to the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt) School of Medicine from Indiana University. These researchers determined that the move is integral in helping the technologies they are developing to attain their optimal healthcare impact.
Sen joins this ecosystem July 1 as vice chancellor for life sciences innovation and technology commercialization for the Pitt School of Medicine and as co-director of McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine, one of the earlier regenerative medicine institutes in the U.Ss. He also will be CSO of the wound-care service line at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC).
He comes to Pitt from his position as director of the Indiana Center for Regenerative Medicine and Engineering and, among his many appointments, Indiana principal investigator for the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) Diabetic Foot Consortium.
In his new positions, “I’ll be working across Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University to develop the life sciences innovation ecosystem in Pittsburgh,” Sen tells GEN. That ecosystem includes the School of Medicine as well as BioForge.
Expanding R&D Opportunities
“A pressing problem is the rising rate of amputation of the diabetic foot,” Sen continues. Amputation incurs enormous costs, not just in terms of dollars but in terms of lost productivity, and the increasing burdens on the patient, family, and the healthcare system. “Oftentimes, innovation is isolated,” he says, so linking UPMC wound care clinics statewide into a research network that generates unprecedented data, “is an unparalleled resource.”
The application of nanotechnology in human health is another strength. One example, Sen says, “is tissue nanotransfection (TNT), a silicon chip-based technology and genetic cargo that reprograms biological tissue within the body. We have shown that skin cells. not the blood vessels of the skin, can be converted into vascular cells and make functional blood vessels in cases where the blood vessels have been traumatized.”
In addition to vasculogenic reprogramming, Sen is also engaged in neurogenic reprogramming to make functional nerve cells. These projects are moving into translational studies.
The ability to conduct primate research was a key attractant to Pittsburgh, he says, along with the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine’s history of successfully developing and commercializing technology.
“Our arrival will strengthen the biotech and clinical components of that institute…such that both bioengineering as well as the biotech/clinical solutions could, together, propel the advancement of regenerative medicine.”
Leveraging Critical Mass
The Pittsburgh biopharma ecosystem has reached a critical mass that Sen says is attractive. He cites the steadily growing awards from the NIH as evidence of the increasing momentum. Specifically, Pitt’s awards have increased from $570 million in 2020, to nearly $623 million in 2021, to more than $675 in 2022. For the first quarter of 2023, Pitt received $180.2 million in 378 awards. In contrast, Indiana University/Purdue University at Indianapolis received $229 million in NIH awards in 2022, and $55.4 million in 121 awards during Q1 2023, according to NIH data.
With that funding comes societal, as well as scientific, obligations, Sen says. “Biomedical scientists need to be mindful of specific gaps that keep highly promising innovation from benefitting the people. Tax-payer dollars fund federal grants which are our primary source of research funding, so I have the responsibility to reach out to society…to make it better.”
Once Sen arrives in Pittsburgh this summer, he says he plans to encourage more collaborations with industry as well as academia. “Leadership support at the highest levels enables effective collaborations between Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University. We’re going to look for a number of industrial partners to work with us in taking some of these technologies to market.”
Applying the engineering talent from AI to biologic challenges will, he predicts, “enable development of novel AI solutions in human healthcare. We believe that, within the next decade, AI will reshape healthcare, making it more affordable and personalized. It is up to us to engage and shape that future.”
Sen equates the expansion of AI in healthcare to the forays of academic researchers into industry. “AI should be in the hands of those who know how to manage it responsibly.” That entails developing knowledgeable regulatory oversight as well as developer expertise. So, rather than focus on possible deliverables, he advocates mastering the subject. By doing so, “not only do you devise new solutions, more importantly you also learn to manage the risks.”
Building on Momentum
The Pittsburgh life sciences ecosystem is thriving and, Sen says, “Its momentum is palpable. There is some serious translational science playing out in Pittsburgh.”
With such enormous possibilities at his fingertips, Sen says his immediate challenge is to become effectively integrated into that environment and then to identify the areas he can best catalyze to generate impact. “To participate in disruptive innovation, you have to really understand the local landscape and its gaps,” he says. “Those steps already are in motion.”
What is needed is a more effective industrial partnership. He calls for industry and scientists to each assume some risks and “come to the table (to collaborate) in an effective manner. Right now, both parties are sort of guarded,” in terms risk-sharing.”
The University of Pittsburgh’s BioForge may help by enabling nearby biomanufacturing for projects as they scale, as well as wet labs and incubation facilities. Set within the 178-acre industrial site of Hazelwood Green, BioForge will offer between 150,000 and 200,000 square feet of space.
Sen seems to sense that, in some regards, he’s on a timeline. At age 56, he says, “In my assessment, I have perhaps another 10 years of big time (scientific contributions). I need to spend the next 10 years sagaciously.”
By joining Pitt and the McGowan Institute, he aims to maximize those potential contributions, enabling productive industry-academia collaborations and improving wound care such that fewer diabetics lose their limbs and quality of life.