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Penn State Professor Lands Multi-Million Dollar Grant to 'Revolutionize Medical Science'

by on August 10, 2015 6:00 AM

Penn State professor of biomedical engineering Yong Wang doesn’t mince words about the possible impacts of his current research.

“It’s going to revolutionize medical science,” Wang says. “Over the past 60 years when we’ve developed a new material or drug, it wasn’t programmable. But our bodies are essentially one programmed unit, so we know what we have to do.”

Wang is researching “programmable biomaterials,” an innovative new technology with a wide range of potential medical applications.

Biomaterials – which are simply foreign objects placed in the body to mimic the function of an organic body part – have been in wide usage for decades. Using a steel rod to stabilize a broken leg, or inserting screws to fix a broken hip, are common applications of this idea.

But Wang’s research is a little bit more complex.

Wang is working to develop artificial tissue made of a special gel-like substance that can be designed to release drugs or other substances on demand from within the human body.

“Say someone with diabetes gets three shots of insulin a day. If you can design a biomaterial that can automatically release that insulin three times a day, you no longer have to worry about the shots,” Wang says. “Something like hasn’t been accomplished yet, but that’s the focus of our research.”

Wang’s team at Penn State has already seen some very promising preliminary results through animal trials, successfully managing to release two drugs at different times using only one biomaterial. Wang brags that “scientists dream of getting these kinds of results,” because of the sheer complexity of the task.

Although Wang says there’s a long way to go before his work his done, this early collection of data was enough to land a $2.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to research this new technology with a focus on cardiovascular disease.

“The reason we want to target cardiovascular disease is because it is the leading disease that kills people in this country, even more than cancer,” Wang says.

Wang envisions these biomaterials being used to release proteins to repair damaged heart tissue, ensure healthy oxygen levels in blood and even to clear clots and blockages in arteries.

With the help of student researchers Boonchay Soontornworajit, Mark Battig, Xiaolong Zhong and his colleague Guo-Hua Fong of the University of Connecticut Health Center, Wang hopes to have this new technology in hospitals within the decade.

Wang even thinks it might be possible to make a commercialized healthcare product using this technology in less than ten years, with more upgrades coming along as Wang and other scientists delve further into the possibilities of programmable biomaterials.

“Many of my peers thought that this was too ambitious,” Wang says. “But that’s okay. Dreaming big is something that human beings have to do.”

Michael Martin Garrett is a reporter and editor for who covers local government, the courts, the arts and writes the Keeping the Faith column. He's a Penn State alumnus, a published poet and the bassist in a local indie rock band.
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