Pitt's Swanson School of Engineering, home to the Center for Medical Innovation. Photo courtesy of the University of Pittsburgh.

Even the highest-tech medical devices began purely as ideas — conceptual, back-of-the-envelope notes that traveled a complicated road from abstract notion to widespread usage.

For six years running, the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Medical Innovation (CMI) has encouraged products along this path by annually providing $200,000 in grants to Pitt researchers.

“These are the kinds of projects that promote tangible innovation,” says Dr. Alan Hirschman, professor of bioengineering and CMI’s executive director.

In the latest round, CMI officials recently announced grants to five engineering and medicine groups under the Pilot Funding Program for Early Stage Medical Technology Research and Development.

The resulting research could someday help doctors treat a wide arrange of ailments, including traumatic eye injuries, hearing loss and respiratory diseases.

“We are translating known principles and known technologies,” Hirschman says, “into usable healthcare products that can improve lives.”

Here are the five ambitious projects that received funding:

1. Pitt researchers hope to develop and bioengineer a synthetic material that would be used to coat the inside of blood vessels to promote blood flow. Technically it’s called a structurally and mechanically tunable Biocarpet for peripheral arterial disease.

“It creates a new surface that is more or less permanent in response to damage,” Hirschman explains. “The medical need is to have tissue repair inside arteries that have been damaged by atherosclerosis.”

2. This project would allow doctors to treat patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases — such as cystic fibrosis — with a new type of medication that hasn’t been usable previously, Hirschman says, “because there is no good delivery system for it.”

The Pitt team hopes to fix that by developing an aerosol delivery system “that will achieve target-organ specificity and efficient delivery to the lung,” Hirschman says. “This has great promise. The (CXCL10 Biomimetic) peptide is a potent biological product that has to be delivered in precise droplets. So we’ve teamed an engineer who knows how to create repeatable aerosols with clinicians familiar with the peptide. The innovation is in the aerosol technology and the precision delivery of the medication.”

3. It’s a surprisingly common problem: An elderly patient receiving treatment cannot hear the doctor’s instructions because of hearing loss.

Rather than run a series of lengthy hearing tests, doctors would use a screener to check the patient’s hearing in a 30- to 60-second audiometer test. If hearing loss is detected, the device would then amplify the doctor’s voice to assure the patient understands his or her care instructions.

“It’s a very simple, straightforward idea,” Hirschman says. “Who knew this was actually a problem? But it turns out that it’s a widespread issue.”

4. For patients suffering traumatic injuries to the eye area, doctors today must dress wounds with gauze and bandages — sometimes leading to infection.

Pitt researchers aim to create a safer space-filling gel that can be inserted directly into the injuries. The gel would not only lower the risk of infection, but stabilize the affected area by providing support for surrounding tissue. In addition, the gel would have therapeutic qualities to assist in recovery.

“It would allow the body to heal in a very unobtrusive way without causing inflammation of other problems,” Hirschman says, which could be valuable for people with traumatic injuries due to traffic accidents or other trauma.

5. Under current root canal procedures, an endodontist removes the infected tissue in a tooth and fills it with a rubber material, Hirschman explains, “and that’s the end of the therapy.”

Vital-Dent is a biologic material that would replace the rubber material to promote healing and regeneration, which in turn could lower the risk of eventual tooth loss. “This shows a lot of promise,” Hirschman says, by replacing “that inert filler material with a new kind of biologic material. If this works, people could have returned function and sensation without having to lose the tooth. It could really strengthen and restore function to the tooth.”

Chris Togneri

Chris Togneri is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.