Coming Soon: More Medical Innovations from Cleveland

Since about 1990, Case Western Reserve University has fueled the region’s growth in biomedical technology and spun off hundreds of start-up companies. Ground zero for this innovation is University Circle, where National Institutes of Health grants, venture capital dollars and philanthropic donations are funding the research labs making growth possible.

Here’s a snapshot of what’s going on in a few of those labs:

Seeing Clearly

Until now, if researchers wanted to view a research subject’s insides, they did exploratory surgery, X-ray, MRI or PET scans. But none of these procedures provides the real-time information needed to see how tissue cells are responding to an experimental drug, treatment or device.

A 23-ton, 10-foot-long magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine at Case’s Center for Imaging Research has changed all that. Currently, the monster MRI is enabling Case and University Hospitals researchers to study biological processes as they occur. Soon, it will give them the ability to study the biological basis of drug addiction, Alzheimer’s disease and ADD/ADHD; understand how “therapeutic interventions” (i.e. drugs, implants) work on the body’s tissues, cells and molecules; and identify the mechanisms fueling the breakdown of the immune system, which leads to more than 80 diseases.

“This kind of imaging research is the essential first step to opening the door to future treatments that are tailored to the individual,” says center director Jeffrey Duerk.

Coughing Freely

A cough is a simple thing for most people. But if you have a spinal-cord injury that prevents you from contracting the muscles in your abdomen used to expel air to produce a cough, you are at risk for choking, bronchitis, pneumonia, even death.

At MetroHealth Medical Center, a federally funded research team is “trialing” a functional electrical stimulation (FES) device that may allow people with spinal-cord injuries to cough on demand. The device — electrodes inserted into the skin over the spinal cord and activated by remote control — has the potential to prevent the need for frequent and painful procedures to drain a patient’s airway and lungs, lessen the need for respiratory therapy and improve patient independence and quality of life.

“This isn’t a new idea,” says Dr. Anthony DiMarco, the study’s principal investigator. “For years, FES has been used to restore breathing for people with spine injuries, but it is a new application for the technology,”

Gel of the Future

If you’ve had your appendix removed, no one can see. When you lose an ear, everyone can.

A new polymer-based hydrogel — called BioGel — being developed at The Cleveland Clinic may help solve that problem. The polymer can serve as a biologically compatible matrix for the replacement of a subject’s own tissue. In addition, it can be engineered to mimic the give-and-take flexibility and strength of everything from bone and joint cartilage to the eye’s vitreous humor. And, once inside the body, it seems resistant to biodegradation.

The idea for the hydrogel, which is performing well in animal trials, came in a flash: “I was sitting in a seminar, and the speaker made a throwaway remark about enzyme-driven reactions,” says biochemist Anthony Calabro, BioGel’s inventor. “That’s when I realized we could use a molecule that’s naturally occurring in human tissues to make a biological material with virtually dozens of applications.”

Advances for Women

Have you tried any of the following? Lunesta. Serafem. Seasonale. Levitra.

If so, you’ve benefited from the pharmaceutical research and human subject trials (Phase II, III and IV trials) done at Beachwood-based Rapid Medical Research. Over the years, the small research facility has gained an international reputation for its rigorous screening and recruitment of patients into pharmaceutical trials designed to find the benefits and risks of medications (including those above) aimed at improving the pre- and postmenopausal well-being of women and their partners.

“We are a for-profit facility, but we aren’t only doing research to make a profit,” says Dr. Wulf Utian, the research firm’s founder, as well as the president of the North American Menopause Society. “We’re doing it to know what’s good and what’s not, and to be able to get that information out to the public as quickly as possible.”

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