Biomedical engineers receive grant for regenerating blood vessels

Researchers have made a gel capable of growing new blood vessels.

The U. S.  Department of Defense has awarded UT associate biomedical engineering professor Aaron Baker with a $2.7 million grant to develop regenerating blood vessels. The grant will fund preclinical trials on the treatment of peripheral vascular disease, or PVD, in rabbits. PVD affects twenty percent of Americans over the age of 65.

In PVD, plaque develops inside blood vessels and causes them to narrow. This can lead to inadequate blood flow to tissue, an issue called peripheral ischemia. Affected limbs may develop wounds that won’t heal. Doctors may have to amputate these limbs, especially in diabetic patients.

Patients’ survival rates plummet after having their limbs amputated. If this gel could reopen blocked arteries, it would save many diabetic patients from amputation, said Richard Smallings, cardiovascular professor at McGovern Medical School and collaborator in the study.

Current treatments for peripheral vascular disease include angioplasties, vein bypasses and vein stenting. These procedures are less effective with very small or spread-out plaques, and can be risky for severely ill patients.

Researchers looked to solve these problems by creating a gel that induces new blood vessel formation in limbs with blocked vessels.

“What our system does is basically grow new blood vessels, so its advantage is using the body’s natural ability to heal,” Baker said. “What we do is look for a way to regrow vasculature in these limbs in order to repair that loss of blood flow.”

The treatment is an injectable gel that contains growth factors and proteoglycans, sugar-containing proteins found in connective tissue. Proteoglycans act as helper molecules and improve the performance of growth factors, which many diabetic and ischemic patients may lack. The enhanced performance of growth factors lead to more blood vessels.

In the study, which was published in Advanced Healthcare Materials, test rats showed high levels of perfusion recovery after being injected with the gel. The researchers will proceed to preclinical trials. 

“You can impact a lot of people in the field,” Baker said. “We actually get a lot of emails and a lot of messages from people when we publish things. They also want to know, can they use our stuff, if their mother or their father has this disease.” 

The grant focuses on creating a product that can go into clinical trials, rather than on academic study, Baker said.

If the regenerative gel proves successful in treating patients with PVD, the next step will be developing therapies for heart diseases. The treatment has the biggest potential for patients who smoke or have high blood pressure, according to Smallings.

“That’s what makes it interesting, figuring out a solution,” Smallings said.  “All we have to do is do some experiments, but it’s fun because we know that if it works we can help our patients.”