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Clemson researcher aims to improve heart valves, arteries

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By Matthew Clark
Published Dec. 1, 2015

Clemson University researcher Dan Simionescu hopes to one day be able to deliver live heart valves to patients ready for surgery.

Thanks to a $1.5 million grant from National Institutes of Health, another $2 million grant in Romania and a partnership between Clemson and Greenville Health System, Simionescu and his research team have started the process of doing just that as well as growing coronary and femoral arteries in a lab rather than the traditional grafting methods used by surgeons today.

Clemson researcher Dan Simionescu (left) shows former Greenville Health System board member Jerry Dempsey how a bioreactor works in creating a live heart valve. (Photo by Matthew Clark)
Clemson researcher Dan Simionescu (left) shows former Greenville Health System board member Jerry Dempsey how a bioreactor works in creating a live heart valve. (Photo by Matthew Clark)
Simionescu, an associate professor of bioengineering, is using the idea of building live heart valves from pigs to develop the arteries using those of pigs combined with stem cells from human fat. In both procedures, the tissues are placed in bioreactor for conditioning and maturation.

“The arteries we are developing would also be less likely to be rejected by the patient than artificial materials,” Simionescu said. “It’s exciting research, and it’s motivated by our desire to help patients live a better life.”

The heart valve technology is currently being tested on sheep in Romania, and Simionescu said “the results have been highly encouraging.”

Work on the projects are done with exact lab setups at Clemson, the Clemson University Biomedical Engineering Innovation Campus at Greenville Health System’s Patewood campus and the laboratory in Romania. For his work, Simionescu was recently awarded the Harriet and Jerry Dempsey CU-GHS Bioengineering Professorship Award, named for a mechanical engineering graduate of Clemson and his late wife. Jerry Dempsey is also the former chairman of the GHS board of trustees.

Additionally, Kevin Taaffe was awarded the Harriet and Jerry Dempsey Industrial Engineering Professorship Award for his work with GHS staff to create an app that helps hospital staff, clinicians and managers coordinate more efficiently when patients go to the hospital for surgery or other procedures.

“The app could be placed on any phone or tablet,” Taaffe said. “It has the potential to transform perioperative services from the time the patient arrives … to preop … to the patient’s time in the operating room … and finally to postop.

“Our goal at the end of the day is to introduce technology that would get adopted in a broader health care setting, and that would lead to better decision making.”

Taaffe said development has included interviewing and surveying GHS clinicians and going through multiple revisions all while getting feedback from GHS staff.

“This has been a long time coming,” Taaffe said.

As for Simionescu’s work, he said the practical applications for the arterial and heart valve reproduction is limitless, but one demographic can benefit greatly from the research.

“This can be used for children because it will eliminate the number of implantations because these will grow with a child,” Simionescu said. “Now, if a child has a valve replacement, it is likely they have to go in and have five or six more because the artificial valves don’t grow.”

The bioreactors used by Simionescu and his team were created by a former Clemson researcher, who recently branched out and created Central-based Aptus LLC, which manufacturers bioreactors. The company supplies the bioreactors using “patent-pending technology” which helps researchers like Simionescu test and develop multiple types of cardiovascular replacements using the same system.

“Clemson is dedicating top researchers to collaborations with Greenville Health System,” said Robert Jones, Clemson provost. “These collaborations will seed research initiatives that integrate faculty and students from various colleges and departments within Clemson. This is just the start of a larger research community spanning the Upstate.”

Reach Matthew Clark at 864-235-5677, ext. 107, or on Twitter @matthewclark76.

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