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New Member Spotlight: WPI

ARMI | BioFabUSA recently caught up with Marsha Rolle, associate professor of Biomedical Engineering at WPI, to discuss WPI’s membership and observations about regenerative medicine.

BioFabUSA: How did WPI learn about the mission of ARMI/BioFabUSA?

Rolle: “Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has been involved in the Manufacturing USA initiative for the past several years.  The university is active as a member of eight of the 14 National Manufacturing Innovation Institutes. WPI has a unique connection to ARMI because Dean Kamen attended WPI, and WPI President Laurie Leshin is a founding member of the ARMI Board of Directors. We are excited by the opportunity to bring our expertise in biomedical engineering, biomanufacturing, robotics, and sensing technologies to address unique engineering challenges presented by the emerging tissue manufacturing industry.

Our Vice Provost for Research, Bogdan Vernescu, summed it up nicely when he said: ‘WPI’s leading role in Manufacturing USA is “a natural connection” because these eight fields reflect some of our current research and academic strengths and because our faculty members and students are already engaged in a lot of interesting and forward-looking work in these areas. We were founded by manufacturers for manufacturing-workforce development, so it’s rewarding to think that we are continuing that long tradition.’ ”


BioFabUSA: What is the focus of WPI in the Regenerative Medicine area?

Rolle: “It is difficult to quantify the number of faculty and students engaged in regenerative medicine research at WPI because we collaborate so broadly across disciplines throughout the campus community. The core of our regenerative medicine effort is in biomedical engineering (BME), where nearly 20 primary and collaborative BME faculty work on development of novel regenerative materials, tissues, cells, computational models, sensors, and imaging technologies. Also, BME faculty have worked closely with colleagues in the WPI Foisie School of Business to develop an innovative PhD training program that challenges students to approach their dissertation projects with an “innovative mindset,” and recognizing opportunities for impact and value creation. 

Marsha Rolle, Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering at WPI, in the laboratory with her students. 

Marsha Rolle, Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering at WPI, in the laboratory with her students. 

With funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training (IGERT) program, the “Training Innovative Leaders in Biofabrication” grant has supported more than 20 PhD fellows at WPI in the departments of biomedical, mechanical, and chemical engineering, physics, and biology and biotechnology since 2012. In addition to disciplinary coursework and dissertation research, WPI IGERT fellows complete a graduate business certificate with courses in entrepreneurship and technology commercialization, and then complete an internship in industry or an international research lab.  Our WPI IGERT program was featured in a panel discussion on education and workforce development at the 2018 ARMI Winter Summit in Manchester, New Hampshire in January.

WPI’s research strength in biofabrication and regenerative engineering was  recently bolstered by the addition of two new assistant professors in January:  Catherine Whittington (Biomedical Engineering) and Elizabeth Stewart (Chemical Engineering).  Dr. Whittington recently completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Eli Lilly and Purdue University, and will develop a research program at WPI focused on combining bio-instructive biomaterials with cells to design 3D tissue-engineered platforms for regenerative medicine and disease modeling. Dr. Stewart recently completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Her research program utilizes an interdisciplinary approach to investigate the biophysical properties of cells, multicellular communities and their microenvironments in disease, with a focus on bacterial infection prevention and control.”


BioFabUSA: What does WPI see as the near-term and long-term breakthroughs in regenerative medicine?

Rolle:  “The promise of cell-based therapies to treat a spectrum of conditions, from cancer to heart attacks and osteoarthritis, is quickly coming to fruition technologically. Manufacturing innovation will be critical to enable broad clinical use of promising therapeutic cells. For example, automation and inline sensing systems may facilitate cell expansion and monitoring to generate the billions of cells required to treat disease, while reducing manufacturing time and cost, limiting contamination, and increasing cell quality and reproducibility.”


BioFabUSA: Are there any current breakthroughs you see as promising at WPI?

 Rolle: “WPI brings a broad range of multi-disciplinary expertise to its efforts in regenerative medicine and health technologies, from biomedical engineering and biotechnology, to physics, computer science, and robotics. Some of the most exciting breakthroughs emerging from WPI research programs include the application of plant tissues as a source of cells to manufacture biopharmaceuticals and decellularized biomaterials for human cell delivery. We have also made recent advances in cell delivery and tissue repair using fibrin microthread technology invented at WPI, and developed new approaches to biofabrication of implantable tissues such as cardiac and skeletal muscle, blood vessels and trachea.  

And several WPI researchers are developing high throughput human micro tissue models for drug testing. It will be really exciting if functional living tissues can be reproducibly manufactured and analyzed as a tool to predict human responses to promising drugs. This breakthrough could both reduce the cost and improve the safety and efficacy of new pharmaceuticals.”


BioFabUSA: Why did WPI join ARMI and what do you hope to receive from the greater BioFabUSA community?

Rolle: “Being a member of ARMI has generated new industry and academic partnerships. Myself, (Marsha Rolle, associate professor of Biomedical Engineering at WPI) and Claudia Zylberberg, CEO of Akron Biotech, were awarded one of nine ARMI “Quick Start” projects. The project will utilize manufactured tissues in the Rolle lab to assess novel cryopreservation media developed at Akron Biotech to address ARMI/BioFabUSA Technical Thrust 5: Tissue Testing, Preservation and Transport. Overall, we hope that these partnerships will lead to new career and training opportunities for our students, more rapid commercial and clinical translation of WPI research discoveries, and innovations in both manufacturing research and educational programs offered in collaboration with ARMI members.”


BioFabUSA: What can WPI bring to other Members of ARMI and the industry, for example what courses, programs, or degrees will WPI offer / or already offers in biofabrication?

Rolle: “WPI has been a leader in manufacturing education and innovation since its founding in 1865 – it’s woven into our institutional mission to train the next generation of technology leaders who can integrate “theory and practice.” Specifically, the WPI Biomanufacturing Education and Training Center (BETC) offers a number of courses, workshops and symposia that bring academic and industry experts together to advance technology and workforce development in this important field. 

We look forward to welcoming ARMI members as speakers and delegates in our upcoming WPI Symposium on Advanced Biomanufacturing on April 9-10, 2018 and gratefully acknowledge ARMI’s sponsorship and participation.  We look forward to sharing our curricula, facilities and expertise broadly with ARMI members, and learning how to even more effectively engage industry partners to increase the real-world focus of our educational programs.