Clarkson director recognized for biotech innovation [Watertown Daily Times, N.Y.]By Christopher Robbins, Watertown Daily Times, N.Y.McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
July 29--POTSDAM -- Scientists soon may be able to build you a bile duct -- or a burger -- from scratch.
That is where Gabor Forgacs, director of Clarkson University's Shipley Center for Innovation, says his research is heading.
"The technology is in the field of tissue engineering -- fabricating tissues for replacement and for improving the function of damaged tissues," he said. "It has many more applications. We are now focusing on animal products such as leather and meat. After all, those are also built from tissues."
Mr. Forgacs recently won the AutoVision Innovation Award from 2b AHEAD, a German think tank. The award, sponsored by Volkswagen subsidiary AutoVision, previously had gone to the inventors of the Internet video chat service Skype, to the inventor of the MP3 player and to Nintendo, for the development of the Wii remote control.
"When they invited me for this meeting, when they told me I was going to get the award, I really didn't know," Mr. Forgacs said. "I looked at the list of people who previously received this award. I realized that this was bigger than I had previously thought."
"You opened the door for the future of medicine with your vision," the think tank wrote. "One day, your idea may be the basis to let the ancient human dream of the prolongation of life become reality."
The think tank recognized Mr. Forgacs for his work on three-dimensional bioprinting, which uses 3-D printing to create biological structures such as tissues and organs.
"I was trained as a theoretical physicist, so I've strongly deviated from that field," he said. Mr. Forgacs taught physics at Clarkson for 15 years. During that time, he developed an interest in life sciences.
"I wrote a book connecting physics as much as possible with biology," he said. "I was interested in early embryonic phenomena where beautiful things happen from the fertilized egg, where you arrive at forms and shapes of the organs."
Mr. Forgacs started making increasingly complex structures with living cells.
"We started to ask if we could use them as building blocks on a larger scale," he said, "and then the idea came that we can put them in a printing cartridge and print them with a 3-D printer."
Three-dimensional printing is an additive manufacturing process that creates products by adding materials layer by layer, Mr. Forgacs said, but bioprinting adds another layer of complexity.
"It is one thing to do the additive manufacturing where you deposit some plastic of powder, but it is something different when you deposit cells or other cellular material," he said. "Cells need to have their buddies around. One cell is not going to make an organ; it is not going to make a tissue."
Mr. Forgacs took his research to the University of Missouri, Columbia, Mo., where he worked for a decade.
"There is no medical school here, and I needed a collaboration with life scientists more than what Clarkson could offer," he said. "My wife has stayed here in Potsdam. It was a pretty hectic life, but on the professional side it was very rewarding."
His research spun off two startup companies. The first, Organovo, a San Diego-based biotech firm, built one of the first 3-D tissue printers. The other, Modern Meadow, uses similar technology to create in-vitro meat and leather.
This winter, Mr. Forgacs made waves by appearing at the TedMed 2011 conference and eating a piece of meat created in his laboratory. He argued that the in-vitro meat eventually could help ease global hunger and make many of the ethical and religious prohibitions against eating meat irrelevant.
Not only that, Mr. Forgacs said, but laboratory-created meat is better for the environment.
"There is a lot of controversy around industrial meat and leather production. It is terribly unfriendly to the environment," he said. "This is a field where many organizations and environmentally conscious people are devoting time and money. It is the only company that I know of that is trying to do something like that."
In the meantime, Mr. Forgacs continues his research at the University of Missouri while living and working in Potsdam.
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