Research & Innovation

Stevens to Lead a Groundbreaking Collaborative Study on Preventing Infections in Engineered Organs

NSF-funded project brings research experts from five universities together to prevent infections in tissue-engineered organs, implants and other devices

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded a $1.325 million grant for a study titled “Collaborative Research: GCR: Infection-Resisting Resorbable Scaffolds for Engineering Human Tissue.” Led by Stevens Institute of Technology’s Matthew Libera, professor of materials science, and Hongjun Wang, professor of biomedical engineering, the project is part of a $3.6 million collaborative research grant with cross-disciplinary partners at Binghamton University, City College of New York, Syracuse University and the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School.

Scaffolds are the foundation of engineered tissues being developed to mitigate acute shortages in donor organs and resolve many shortcomings of other synthetic medical implants and devices. However, bacteria are known to colonize biomedical devices, including those used as scaffolds for engineering tissues, leading to antibiotic-resistant biofilms that cause chronic and often catastrophic infections.

Through this grant, the team will study ways to control infection and integrate solutions into the design of next-generation scaffolds.

“Tissue engineering is a forward-looking field developed over the past three decades by the convergence of cell and molecular biology, the physical sciences, engineering and translational medicine,” Wang said. “However, the focus in the past has centered only on developing scaffolds for tissue growth. We are excited to introduce new concepts of infection control. The new scaffolds we are designing will not only grow human tissue, but will also simultaneously resist bacterial colonization. This new approach has the potential to change the established tissue-engineering paradigm to address the development of healthy tissue associated with healing as well as the need to inhibit bacterial colonization associated with infection. That is an essential and big step for translation.”

This project involves nearly a dozen cross-disciplinary researchers with diverse expertise across microbiology, polymer science, tissue engineering, biomaterials science, computational chemistry, veterinary medicine and medical-device development.  

"Each of the five schools is bringing different expertise and different perspectives,” said Libera. “We are excited to converge our diverse strengths around the specific and important problem of creating infection-resisting scaffolds."

To facilitate convergence, the team will orchestrate interactions and adopt policies that promote intersection across disciplines, institutions and groups. Among these is the offering of a new inter-institutional course, open to students at all five universities, that concentrates on infection associated with scaffolds and other biomedical devices.  

"We get to take advantage of the remote teaching and learning methods developed during the pandemic to create this virtual course where the students and the faculty can be located anywhere," Libera explained. “As a result, we can easily leverage the full spectrum of skill sets and expertise from the five core universities."

The group is also planning to coordinate Ph.D. research with co-advisors and thesis committee members from multiple core universities. Likewise, undergraduate research students will have the opportunity to spend summers at any one of the partnering universities to advance specific research tasks and benefit from being on another campus for eight to 10 weeks.

"This is just the beginning," added Wang. "Device-associated infection can be a big clinical and societal problem. What we learn in our development of infection-resisting scaffolds can be translated to hip and knee implants, heart valves, pacemakers and a whole host of other vital biomedical devices."