Engineering Unique Solutions to Common Medical Problems

October 19, 2009

October 19, 2009 — When it comes to medicine, one might consider Shayn M. Peirce-Cottler, Ph.D., a professional problem-solver. One of the University of Virginia's most prolific inventors, the biomedical engineer has developed a number of innovative tools to assist clinicians in battling some of medicine's most difficult challenges.

'It's important to me to engage in invention and develop solutions to help real patients,' she says. 'Having that tangible impact on human health is why I became a biomedical engineer.'

Peirce-Cottler's work with special cells found in fat, or adipose, tissue could have a tremendous impact on the treatment and prevention of many complex medical conditions.

Working with U.Va. plastic surgeon Adam J. Katz, M.D., she has found that these cells — known as adipose progenitor cells — can be used to restore the blood flow vital to organs and tissues. Healthy blood flow is a key component in the treatment of a variety of diseases, among them cardiac ischemia; caused by inadequate blood flow to the heart, cardiac ischemia is the leading cause of death in the United States.

'There are a lot of diseases that result from blood vessels essentially being sick; it's the common thread among diabetes, poor blood circulation in the limbs, diseases of the retina and cardiac ischemia, which causes heart disease,' says Peirce-Cottler. 'We've found that these cells are very good at keeping blood vessels thriving.'

Progenitor cells found in adult adipose tissues can differentiate into many different types of cells and are thought to be exceptionally good candidates for therapeutic use. Cells are easily harvested using minimally invasive liposuction, after which they can be processed and enhanced for patient treatment. They can also survive in even the most hostile environments, such as that of a diabetic wound.

The researchers are currently seeking FDA approval to conduct clinical testing on the use of adipose progenitor cells for diabetic wound care. They are also exploring several other avenues for this research, including an innovative device for spraying aggregated cells onto a wound for more effective healing. In addition, Peirce-Cottler and colleagues are working to precondition subpopulations of these cells with enhanced capabilities for certain therapeutic applications.

Among Peirce-Cottler's many other collaborations is the development of a device that streamlines the insertion of pressure-equalization tubes into the eardrums of children with chronic ear infections, the most commonly performed surgical procedure in the United States. Working with otolaryngologist Bradley W. Kesser, M.D., and pediatrician Meg G. Keeley, M.D., Peirce-Cottler is making this procedure safer and faster by combining the work of four instruments in just one device.

The U.Va. Patent Foundation has licensed a training kit the researchers developed for this device to health-care product supplier NASCO International Inc. As a result, the training kits, which are used to instruct medical students and residents in common ear procedures and diagnostic techniques, are now available to academic institutions and others worldwide.

— By Morgan Estabrook