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Pitt scientist to seek replacement human parts with lymph nodes

| Thursday, Sept. 24, 2009

Need a new liver• Perhaps a better-functioning pancreas• Or maybe several hundred extra T-cells to fight infections?

Eric Lagasse thinks he's found a way to get the body to grow replacement tissue for failing organs, and the National Institutes of Health today plans to give the regenerative medicine scientist at University of Pittsburgh $3 million to give it his best shot.

"There are patients out there dying because there is no solution to their problem," said Lagasse, an associate professor in the department of pathology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

"I'm really pushing toward eventually doing this in a patient, and I'm going to try to get there in five years," said Lagasse, also a researcher at the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine, a joint venture of Pitt and UPMC. "Every time I talk to a surgeon about this, they get very excited."

The NIH grant is part of a new federal program to pay for risky research that, if successful, could pay off in a big way.

In addition, University of Pittsburgh engineer Ipsita Banerjee will receive $1.5 million to not only turn government-approved embryonic stem cells into insulin-producing cells for diabetics, but figure out how that process works.

By applying math and engineering principles, Banerjee plans to dissect the process and find areas that could be improved so that the stem cells are turned into as many high-quality insulin-producing cells as possible.

With his grant, Lagasee plans to use lymph nodes, part of the immune system, to grow new tissue. There are 500 lymph nodes throughout the body.

For example, if a patient needs a new kidney, Lagasse would find a nearby lymph node and introduce kidney cells that would turn into a new kidney. Because the lymph node has a good blood supply, it is an ideal site to grow tissues. Cancer has long known this, often hijacking lymph nodes to make cancer cells.

Normally, without many more years of research and several smaller grants, Lagasse and Banerjee said, their research wouldn't have had a chance of receiving such large government grants.

But the NIH pulled together scientists with a reputation for being able to think broadly about science, leaving behind their preconceived notions of what research is worthwhile, and asked them to select the best of hundreds of nontraditional proposals, said Keith Yamamoto, co-chairman of the NIH grant program's scientific review panel.

"We wanted to see if we could reach further and look for ... the kind of work that, instead of extending the current paradigm is disruptive of the traditional way of thinking," said Yamamoto, professor of cellular and molecular pharmacology at the University of California, San Francisco.

"So yes, it's risky, but we're really looking at these distinctive, bold ideas ... that, if correct, would have a huge impact."

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