Surgeons help guide the research

Dr. Fred Nelson performs brain surgery on a rat at Clemson’s Godley-Snell Research Center. With his help, the researchers are testing implants for replacing stroke-damaged brain tissue. Photo courtesy the Simionescu lab.

Lots of research programs show promise, but not many are so promising that ten busy surgeons volunteer their time to contribute. That’s the case with the tissue-regeneration studies led by Dan Simionescu.

“What Dan and his team are doing is incredible,” says Dr. Chris Wright, a thoracic surgeon and chief of medical staff affairs for the Greenville Health System (GHS). “More than anyone I know, he has bridged that gap from basic science to application, and it;s really going to pay off for patients. I’m convinced of that.”

Wright began working with the research team about five years ago, after he attended a symposium where Simionescu presented his work on a vascular conduit. Simionescu introduced him to his student, Lee Sierad (read putting new parts to the test), and Wright decided to help Sierad develop and test regenerated heart valves. He serves on Sierad’s thesis committee and guides the clinical aspects of the research. Wright enjoys working with the students, he says, not only because he can help them understand the clinical applications of their work but also because they teach him engineering.

“I really think that the technology and their approach will develop a heart valve different from anything we have now,” Wright says, “because it will be dynamic and will grow with the individual. It’s not an artificial valve; it is truly a replacement.”

Wright’s colleague at GHS, Dr. Fred Nelson, a neurosurgeon, works with Natasha Topoluk (read repairing a stroke damaged brain) to regenerate brain tissue damaged by stroke. On the Clemson campus, Nelson surgically implanted scaffolds seeded with stem cells into lab rats disabled by stroke, and Topoluk assisted. The team spent twenty-five hours in the animal lab over three days. The procedures were microsurgery and very exacting; there’s not a lot of room to maneuver in the head of a lab rat. Nelson laughs. “Why they couldn’t use a New York subway rat, I don’t know.”

After the procedures and a recovery period, “there was marked improvement on the functional scale,” Nelson says about the rats that received the implants. “I think this is a promising possible treatment for stroke.”

What motivates him to devote so much time to research? In addition to the potential to help human patients, he finds it rewarding to work with students and academic researchers, he says. “I think the science is fascinating, and I like the people.”

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