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Husband-wife team leaves NIH to start new medical centers at Pitt

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By Allison M. Heinrichs
Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A husband and wife will leave top posts at the National Institutes of Health to separately direct newly created hubs for medical research at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, officials announced Tuesday.

Cecilia Lo, a biologist specializing in congenital heart disease, will lead the Department of Developmental Biology. Her husband, tissue-engineering expert Rocky Tuan, will direct the Center for Cellular and Molecular Engineering in the orthopedic surgery department.

The couple, married 33 years, will join Pitt this summer, moving from Bethesda, Md.

"There's such a culture of translational medicine in Pittsburgh, and that makes it so exciting for me," said Lo, director of the Genetics and Developmental Biology Center and chief of the Laboratory of Developmental Biology at the NIH's National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

"To have a lot of clinicians who are really interested in doing research and actively engaged in research is just fantastic. I really see a great future here."

Getting two NIH scientists should give Pitt an edge in winning NIH grants, said Dr. Freddie Fu, who chairs the orthopedic surgery department. Pitt has ranked among the top 10 recipients of NIH funding since 1997 and currently ranks fifth.

Fu expects Tuan, a researcher for 30 years, to guide younger scientists.

"Dr. Rocky Tuan is renowned, not just as a researcher, but as a teacher and a mentor," Fu said. "With Rocky coming here, I think people are jealous about it because it's hard to get a scientist to come out of the NIH — NIH is already the most elite."

Tuan is chief of cartilage biology and orthopedics at the NIH's National Institute of Arthritis, and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.

Tuan said he was attracted to Pitt because of the intradisciplinary atmosphere. Instead of shipping research data and ideas to another department for input, he said, at Pitt "they're actually huddling together to come up with solutions."

He plans to assemble a team that would combine biological and engineering principles to create therapies for things such as genetic mutations, traumatic injuries and diseases caused by aging and cancer. He'll use nanotechnology and adult stem cells to grow tissue that can repair damaged muscle and cartilage.

"The nice thing about Pittsburgh is that there are already a lot of people thinking this way in the city," he said. "It's not like I have to reinvent the wheel; it's more like preaching to the choir."

For seven years, Lo has worked on basic research to understand the genetic causes of congenital heart disease.

"This is a birth defect involving the heart," Lo said. "Most are rather life-threatening. Most patients require cardiac surgery."

Her research has become clinical, moving from mouse models into therapeutic treatments for people. Based in the John G. Rangos Sr. Research Center at the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh campus in Lawrenceville, her laboratory will explore how treatments such as stem cell therapy could help patients.

"So my lab is interested in congenital heart disease, but the department is going to be much broader," Lo said. "I would like to see a strong presence in terms of basic research using different animal models to study development. And the goal in the future is to integrate the basic scientists with the clinician scientists.

"Once we understand the basic science underlying diseases that affect children, we'll be able to develop effective therapies."

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