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Seeking solutions for stroke patients, mechanical engineering researcher receives $682,000 NIH grant

November 22, 2016

Tom Merrill’s mind is focused on everyone else’s brains.

The National Institutes of Health recently awarded Merrill – more accurately, Dr. Thomas Merrill – a $682,000, 18-month grant toward his work to improve the outcomes of people who suffer a stroke.

Merrill, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and biomedical engineering in the Henry M. Rowan College of Engineering at Rowan University, has spent the last 11 years developing a catheter that potentially can cool brain tissue 10 times more quickly than competitive technology.

In a crisis, that’s critical. Quicker cooling, Merrill said, will help save vital organ tissue and help reduce the number of deaths due to strokes.

“Stroke is the leading cause of serious long-term disability in the U.S. Billions of dollars are at stake. We think we have an idea that can improve patient outcomes and reduce this cost,” he said.

Merrill, who conducts his research and his business, FocalCool, LLC, out of a lab in the South Jersey Technology Park at Rowan University in Mantua Township, is striving to develop a catheter that will cool tissue right where the damage is. Existing products cool the entire body and can take as long as 45 minutes to cool damaged tissue.

The engineer has earned more than $2.6 million from the National Institutes of Health; The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute; and other funders since he co-founded the research company in 2004 with financial assistance from Dr. Jay Yadav, former CEO of CardioMems, Inc. of Atlanta and a pioneer in cardiac stents. In the early days, Merrill worked with his engineer wife, Denise, to design prototypes of the catheter in the basement of their then-home outside of Princeton.

Today, he and a small staff are in the pre-clinical stages of the project, and they are working with leading medical device makers Stryker Neurovascular, Fremont, California, and Medtronic Neurovascular, Dublin.

“We need industry input at the start so that we create the right product for the marketplace and improve our chances of eventually licensing the technology after we’ve demonstrated its effectiveness,” the inventor said.

Merrill and his associates are expanding on work they previously did on a device called the “CoolGuide Catheter.” At this stage, Merrill and his team – which includes Rowan Engineering alumni and students – are refining the device to work with stent retrievers, which are threaded through blood vessels to reach and pull out clots in the brain.

Essentially today’s technologies deploy a “removable stent” that pushes into the clot and grabs on to it physically and then pulls the clot and stent downwards away from the blockage area and into a catheter for complete removal and restoration of blood flow.

Doctors currently use a three-part system to remove clots: a large guide catheter, a micro catheter and a clot-removal (known as a thrombectomy-removal) device.

The large guide catheter goes inside the carotid artery. The micro catheter goes further into the vascular system deep into the brain. The thrombectomy-removal device, which enters through the first two catheters, does the actual work, similar to a stent pulling the clot out. Afterwards, physicians introduce warm blood into the brain.

Fresh warm blood, however, is not the best answer after a stroke, Merrill noted. It may cause reperfusion injury. When cells lose blood flow, he explained, they are programmed to die. When blood flow is reintroduced into the tissue, it is possible to re-energize the cells and to push them towards death, sometimes contributing to as much as half of the brain injury attributed to strokes.

Merrill’s goal is to have his catheters serve as a type of delivery system for the removable stents, augmenting the existing devices’ work with therapeutic hypothermia, cooling tissue and limiting damage as the stent engages and retrieves the clot and afterwards. His CoolGuide catheter would replace the standard large guide catheter.

  • New research provides key insight about mitochondrial replacement therapy

New research provides key insight about mitochondrial replacement therapy

December 1, 2016

Rowan University researcher part of OHSU-led study in Nature suggesting mitochondrial donors should be carefully selected to avoid transmission of harmful mutations.

A new discovery may unlock the answer to a vexing scientific question: How to conduct mitochondrial replacement therapy, a new gene-therapy technique, in such a way that safely prevents the transmission of harmful mitochondrial gene mutations from mothers to their children.

A study published in the journal Nature suggests that clinicians select egg donors whose mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is compatible to the mother’s ancestral mitochondria. Similar groups of mitochondrial DNA are known as haplotypes, each of which represents major branching points on the human genetic family tree.

“This research suggests that we’re going to have the greatest success rates for producing an embryo free of disease-causing genetic mutations by making sure we are using the right combination of haplotypes,” said senior author Shoukhrat Mitalipov, Ph.D., who directs the Center for Embryonic Cell and Gene Therapy at Oregon Health and Science University.

Mitochondrial replacement therapy offers hope for women genetically predisposed to pass on mutant mitochondria, the tiny powerhouses inside nearly every cell of the body. Mitochondrial DNA is passed only from mothers to their children. Mutations can cause a range of potentially fatal disorders affecting organs with high-energy demands such as the heart, muscle and brain.

Mitochondrial replacement therapy, which has been approved for clinical trials in the United Kingdom, involves swapping faulty mitochondria for those of a healthy donor. Mitalipov previously pioneered the spindle-transfer technique, in which the nucleus – or spindle – of a mother’s egg is transferred into a donor egg stripped of its nucleus. Mitalipov successfully demonstrated this technique with rhesus macaque monkeys in 2009.

Yet even a small amount of mutant mitochondrial DNA carried over with the mother’s nucleus can replicate quickly as the embryo develops – possibly causing the disease that the therapy was designed to prevent. Today’s study suggests a way to prevent mothers from passing on mutant mitochondria.

Mitalipov and colleagues recruited four families who have children suffering from Leigh Syndrome and one with a neurodegenerative disorder called MELAS. They also collected donor eggs from 11 healthy women, screened to confirm that they did not carry inherited pathogenic mutations in their mtDNA.

Spindles from carrier eggs were transferred into 36 donor eggs stripped of their nuclei, fertilized and cultured to blastocysts, and subsequently to embryonic stem cell lines. Most developed with the donor’s healthy mitochondrial DNA continuing to dominate. However, a few stem cell lines displayed gradual return to the maternal mtDNA. As those stem cell lines continued to grow in the laboratory, they reverted completely to the original maternal mitochondrial DNA.

Scientists wanted to find out why.

“Currently, there is a lack of studies on the efficacy and safety of oocytes derived from women carrying pathogenic mtDNA mutations,” said co-author Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, Ph.D., with the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. “Our study fills the gap.”

Researchers zeroed in on a portion of the mtDNA known as the D-loop, which initiates replication of the entire genetic sequence. There they discovered DNA code polymorphisms that result in preferential replication of the mother’s mtDNA. In addition, some maternal mtDNA haplotypes give host cells a faster growth advantage. Researchers are proposing donor mtDNA matching criteria to avoid a return of mutant mitochondria in order to safely move mitochondrial replacement therapy into clinical trials.

“Our research has suggested a plausible cause of preferential replication of specific mtDNA haplotypes that should enable us to zero in on ways to identify better matches between donors and recipients,” said co-author Dmitry Temiakov, Ph.D., with the Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine.


South Jersey Tech Park appoints managing director of Rowan Innovations

December 15, 2016

The Board of Directors of the South Jersey Technology Park has appointed Jeanne Nevelos as managing director of Rowan Innovations, a technology and economic development arm of Rowan University.

Nevelos joins the staff after serving 13 years with Select Greater Philadelphia, the tri-state regional business marketing and attraction organization and division of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, most recently as vice president of Business Expansion Services. Prior to that, she worked as director of External Relations for National Community Capital Association; vice president for Marketing and Product Development for Wachovia; and vice president, corporate lender/relationship manager for Corestates Bank.

A resident of Mickleton, Nevelos earned a B.S. in business and psychology from the University of Pittsburgh and an M.B.A. from Temple University.

She is a board member of Global Philadelphia Association, a Community Engagement Committee member of the University City Science Center and an alumnus of Leadership Philadelphia, among other roles.

Rowan Innovations works with faculty, staff, students and entrepreneurs in the University community and beyond to provide the services and resources that foster business incubation and start-up companies in partnership with Rowan’s Offices of Sponsored Programs and Technology Commercialization.

Among Nevelos’ responsibilities are building relationships with industry, economic development organizations and government agencies seeking technology expertise, as well as coordinating the development of the Technology Park.

“Jeanne’s experience with be invaluable as Rowan continues to advance its technology and economic development initiatives,” said Dr. Shreekanth Mandayam, vice president of Research. “We expect her to provide leadership as we expand research and collaborations and as we further develop the South Jersey Technology Park.”

Noted Dr. Ali Houshmand, president of Rowan University, “Rowan University’s research initiatives are critical to the future of our region. As we grow Rowan Innovations and the Technology Park, we expand research that addresses medical, technology and other issues facing our society, and we also create jobs and a more vibrant economy.”

Rowan Engineering partners with New Jersey Department of Military and Veteran Affairs, National Guard

January 5, 2017

The Henry M. Rowan College of Engineering at Rowan University, Glassboro, New Jersey, recently expanded its partnership with the New Jersey Department of Military and Veteran Affairs (NJDMAVA) and the New Jersey Army National Guard (NJARNG) by adding two multi-million dollar projects: an extension of the Building Information Model (BIM) Internship Program funded with $1.8 million and the start of a Facilities Management Internship Program funded with $2.3 million, both covering 10 years.

Both projects provide 10 to 12 on-campus internship opportunities for students throughout the spring, summer and fall that coincide with engineering clinic classes while producing results the NJARNG can incorporate for facility management and planning.

In the BIM internship program, students conduct laser scans of NJARNG buildings, creating a 3D “reality capture” model of the facilities in minutes with accurate results. The scans are then imported into BIM software, where students can plan everything from structural analysis and construction schedules to lighting and plumbing. Students involved in the facilities management internship will conduct similar work.

Samantha Valentine, Rowan’s BIM internship project manager, said the program fosters a mutually beneficially relationship between Rowan and the NJDMVA/NJARNG.

Valentine said, “National Guard energy managers are tasked with more projects than seem humanly possible, so the internship is a way to give students experience, while cutting spending and providing the NJARNG with new perspectives.” The benefit to using students is they are highly motivated and eager to research, learn and try new things, she added. “These students can help with the leg work.”

For the NJARNG, this cost-effective program alleviates the need to hire a consulting firm for building planning projects. The interns use state-of-the-art BIM software to conduct the scans and produce results quickly and at a lower cost.

National Guards from other states are looking into the project and attempting to replicate programs similar in design and function with universities in their area, according to Valentine.

“Participating in this partnership myself, first as a student at Rowan and now as the energy manager for NJDMAVA, I can truly say that this is a win-win for both Rowan and the NJARNG,” said Christopher Moore, “The students are able to gain unique and valuable experience by working on real-world projects, and the NJARNG is able to meet its federal requirements in a cost-effective way while also training the next generation of engineers. This program has been so successful that it won both the 2016 Federal Energy Management Program and the 2016 Army Community Partnership awards this past year.”

Rowan and NJDMAVA/NJARNG’s connection began in 2009 when Rowan launched a GIS internship program supported by the agencies. Since then, the partnership has created a handful of internship programs, including an environmental and an energy audit program.

Jeff Dib, a senior civil and environmental engineering major, interned on the BIM project during summer and fall 2016, working on creating 3D models of various NJARNG armories using geometric data from laser scanning technology.

“These buildings could be analyzed in a number of ways, most notably for energy analysis, and submitted to NJARNG to suggest energy-saving solutions,” Dib said.

The experience was valuable. “Building Information Modeling is really the future for engineering.  While CAD is still very important and having the skill to be able to work in it is vital, BIM is really where industry is working toward,” Dib said.

Department of Defense awards grant to engineering prof to research renewable resources

January 31, 2017

The United States Department of Defense awarded Rowan University Chemical Engineering assistant professor Dr. Joseph Stanzione III a $800,000 grant to continue his research into polymers and resins made out of renewable resources for DoD applications, including composites, coatings and adhesives for ground and air vehicles and more.

During the three-year project, Stanzione and his team from The Henry M. Rowan College of Engineering will partner with researchers from Drexel University, PPG of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and the United States Army.

One post-doctoral fellow, two Ph.D. students and multiple Rowan undergraduate engineering students will work side by side on the project, designing, synthesizing and testing composites, coatings and adhesives and preparing journal articles, presentations and posters for national and international conferences.

“Students will have the opportunity to do internships at the Army Research Lab in Maryland and even the possibility to intern with PPG,” Stanzione said. PPG is an industry leader in innovation and sustainability. Internship opportunities may include working in their research facilities or at the Army Research Lab.

The main goal of the work is to gain a fundmental understanding of the processing-structure-property relationships of novel bio-based systems, enabling the team to design polymers with superior performance characteristics that can be used for military and civilian applications.

This project continues Stanzione’s 2015 work with the U.S. Army on research to generate plastics from renewable resources that can be used for soldiers’ helmets, firearms and parts for military vehicles.