October 13, 2004

Schools move to create medical reserach unit

Jonathan Maze  /  Post and Courier

3 state universities discussing plan for Charleston Bioengineering Center

Three South Carolina universities have taken the first step toward creating a bioengineering center in Charleston where researchers would work on the latest medical technologies.

The Medical University of South Carolina, Clemson University and the College of Charleston are in early-stage discussions of a plan for a Charleston Bioengineering Center that would house the area's burgeoning bioengineering education and research efforts.

The center would provide the space needed for MUSC and Clemson to grow their year-old bioengineering partnership. It could also house an undergraduate bioengineering program that may be developed by Clemson and the College of Charleston.

Other institutions could also be brought on board to contribute to the center. "We intend to make this an open collaboration," said Dr. John Raymond, MUSC's provost. The center would potentially be funded with money from the Life Sciences Act, if that legislation is ruled legal, or under new legislation passed by the General Assembly.

The act, passed last year to provide funds for universities' research programs, has been challenged in court because it includes a number of unrelated amendments. The provosts from the three institutions discussed the idea for a center a month ago, and Clemson President James Barker is expected to visit Charleston in coming weeks to further map out plans.

Officials are eager to see the idea work. Bioengineering is considered a key area of research, one that could have profound implications for hospitals and patients, not to mention the economy. "It's a hot topic right now," said Dan Knapp, a pharmacology professor and MUSC's director of the Clemson-MUSC bioengineering partnership.

Bioengineering involves creating replacements for missing or defective organs, or making devices that support them. At present, it is a tiny part of the economy, but many experts expect it to grow rapidly.

For one thing, the population that benefits most from bioengineering, the elderly, is growing fast. Their numbers are expected to double by 2050, with those over 85 expected to quadruple in number, said Martine LaBerge, who chairs Clemson's bioengineering department. B

ecause South Carolina is home to a sizable population of retirees, the state has, for example, a high rate of arthritis. That can mean high demand for joint replacements, such as artificial knees and hips, that are developed through bioengineering.

Officials believe this growth could mean jobs in the Charleston area. They believe that the products bioengineering researchers develop could be spun off into startup companies that grow into massive job-producing corporations. They also believe that the research and education could lure existing companies to the area, notably the medical device industry.

Medical device makers posted $57 billion in revenue in 2002, according to Frost & Sullivan, a New York-based consulting firm. The industry is expected to grow 8 percent by 2005. "It has a major potential economic impact," Knapp said of the bioengineering effort.

MUSC and Clemson did have the economy in mind when beginning their bioengineering partnership a year ago. That partnership was an outgrowth of the Bioengineering Alliance of South Carolina, which includes MUSC, Clemson and the USC School of Medicine. The alliance, created in the 1980s, had been largely dormant until last year.

Under the partnership, two Clemson professors are housed at MUSC, and they have 12 graduate students doing their doctoral work here. The institutions could add another four faculty members, but they are limited by space constraints at MUSC. Research space there is at a premium after years of growth that has raised the school's total amount of research to $180 million last year, $30 million more than the year before. Though two buildings, the Children's Research Institute and the expanded Hollings Cancer Center, will ease the crunch, it may not be enough for bioengineering. "We're severely limited on space," said Raymond.

For MUSC, the partnership and the bioengineering center would allow it to add an engineering element to its clinical research. Clemson, which has the state's only bioengineering department, would like to see its work brought to the bedside and was thus lured to the partnership by MUSC's clinical work. "We get the benefit of having a medical school without having to pay for it," LaBerge said.

Should a center be built, Clemson and the College of Charleston may develop an undergraduate bioengineering program to complement the graduate education and research. Elise Jorgens, the college's provost, said the school views a bioengineering program as a way to provide the school's biology students with another option for a career path. She said the program is a long-term goal, and portrayed the college's interest as preliminary.

"We're always interested in possibilities," Jorgens said. "But it's possible that in five years you may call me and we won't have anything. At least it's something we're not shutting out now."