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Buffalo center fuels research that can save your life from heart disease and stroke | Local News

Dr. Jennifer Lang splits most of her work life treating patients at Gates Vascular Institute and conducting research in her lab several floors up in the same building.

UB medical physics students Simon Wu and Emily Vanderbelt work with flow-through 3D-printed aneurysm models using X-rays in the Canon Stroke & Vascular Research Center, part of the University at Buffalo Clinical and Translational Research Center on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

The arrangement suits her well as she continues promising research to learn if a stem cell-derived treatment can repair damaged heart tissue.

Lang, a cardiologist, and her University at Buffalo team, face a dilemma: The immune system revs into high gear when the heart suffers a serious setback, limiting the power of stem cells to heal.

The daunting task seems more surmountable these days because she works in a building filled with researchers of all stripes.

“I do collaborations with groups that I otherwise wouldn’t have. It’s led to some really new, interesting results,” said Lang, assistant professor in the UB Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences who practices with UBMD Internal Medicine and at the Buffalo VA Medical Center.

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Lifesavers: How the 10-year-old Gates Vascular Institute lifted WNY medical care

This day, a surgical team worked seamlessly to monitor her vital signs and feather a medical device through a catheter into the left side of her damaged heart. The procedure slowed her heartrate so her organs could take a couple of days to re-collect themselves and give her a fighting chance to recover.

UB-fueled research unfolds on floors five through eight of the building at 875 Ellicott St., alongside Buffalo General Medical Center.

Ten years ago, the university plowed more than $170 million into its Clinical and Translational Research Center, including more than $25 million for equipment from industry partners who wanted to join forces with physicians, engineers and others in the science fields.

The center became the first major piece of the UB medical school to move onto the downtown Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, followed in late 2017 by the $375 million Jacobs School teaching and research complex, around the corner at Main and High streets.

Both foster translational medicine, which combines disciplines, resources and techniques to move benchtop research to the patient bedside, eventually strengthening community health.

Lang’s work symbolizes the approach.

The Buffalo native can see her high school alma mater, City Honors, from her workplace. She went to Cornell University as an undergraduate and returned to Buffalo to go to medical school. Buoyed by fellow UB students, faculty and mentors, she chose to stay in the city for her internal medicine residency and cardiology fellowship.

Lang did her classroom work and research on the UB South Campus and most of her clinical work 8 miles away, on the downtown Medical Campus.

Stairs and elevators are the only things that separate her from most of her collaborators and patients today.

“I moved into this building when it opened 10 years ago,” she said. “At the time, I was completing my cardiology fellowship. There was a physical divide, so I was thrilled with the new arrangement. Things can happen in parallel now.”

Dr. Timothy Murphy

Dr. Timothy Murphy, left, director of the UB Clinical and Translational Research Center in Buffalo, works with research technician Charmaine Kirkham in their lab, which focuses on potential treatments for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). 

That was the plan, said Dr. Timothy Murphy, director of the UB Clinical and Translational Research Center.

“Clinical research and health care have become more and more seamlessly integrated,” he said. “The building contributed to that.”

Murphy, another regional native, was among those who shared – and helped carry out – the vision of Gates Vascular Institute founder Dr. L. Nelson “Nick” Hopkins III, who chaired the UB Department of Neurosurgery from 1989 to 2013 and wanted to create a more innovative vascular center.

Murphy moved his lab in 2006 from the VA Medical Center near South Campus to the UB Center for Bioinformatics and Life Sciences on the Medical Campus, so he could be involved in the design of the UB research center, on floors above Gates Vascular, as well as at the Jacobs School – particularly its labs.

“They always talked about physicians and researchers bumping into each other, talking to each other, and having graduate students and postdocs and technicians talk to each other,” Murphy said. “Having done it now for all these years, I see it really does work.”

He and his research team continue a 20-year study on the bacterial infection that causes COPD in hopes it will help lead to vaccines that prevent the infection and new treatments to clear the bacteria from the lower airway.

As senior associate dean for clinical and translational research at the Jacobs School, he is also the point person for coordinating UB-related clinical trials and encouraging “collisions” between health care researchers on the Medical Campus – and around the world.

There were 70 such trails on the Medical Campus in 2015, when the building where he works was in its infancy. Today, there are more than 200.

Dr. Jennifer Lang

“Things can happen in parallel now,” says Dr. Jennifer Lang, a cardiologist, researcher and University at Buffalo assistant professor who splits her research and clinical time in the same building on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

Labs focused on obstetric and gynecological advances and keys to healthy aging occupy space near his seventh-floor lab.

The Clinical and Translational Research Center was established in 2012. UB added a biobank in 2019 to store medical specimens for ongoing clinical studies.

Its collaborative framework helped UB land a $15 million Clinical and Translational Science Award in 2015 from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to encourage research efforts across university departments and specialties to boost innovation, speed development of medical treatments, and reduce health disparities in poor, rural and minority communities.

The five-year grant was renewed in 2020 with nearly $22 million more, encouraging Buffalo-based researchers to work with others who got awards, including researchers with Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Stanford and Yale universities.

3D printer

A printer creates a 3D model, slice by slice, at the Canon Stroke & Vascular Research Center in the University at Buffalo Clinical and Translational Research Center. Lab researchers experiment with different mixtures of six polymers to make the most malleable and useful models for medical research. 

Throughout the building, the goal is to improve medical devices and treatments that make an impact in the clinics and catheter suites in the Gates Vascular Institute on the floors below the research center – and provide data and education that informs others, including patients.

The eighth-floor Canon Stroke & Vascular Research Center, which tops the UB research center, is a case in point.

Ciprian “Chip” Ionita, its director, came to UB from Romania in 1999 and worked his first dozen years on the South Campus.

“We were the first ones to move in,” said Ionita, assistant professor of biomedical engineering and member of the medical school’s Department of Neurosurgery.

The lab was designed to help innovate and improve medical devices and neurovascular procedures.

Part of its work involves using MRIs, CT scans and other radiological images of Gates Vascular patients to create 3D-printed models of the circulatory system and heart.

3D printer products

3D printing created this replica of part of a patient’s spinal column at the Canon Stroke & Vascular Research Center. Researchers there push the boundaries until their findings are refined to the point where they can be applied to model-making on two highly calibrated 3D printers in the Jacobs Institute downstairs from the lab that meet FDA standards. “We fail up here about 90% of the time,” says Ciprian “Chip” Ionita, lab director. “They fail maybe 1%, so we’re testing everything that’s possible.”

Medical school and other lab researchers use the models produced here to better understand how anatomy and disease of former and current patients led to poor health and, in some cases, poor surgical outcomes.

Gates Vascular surgeons also can use 3D models that replicate the anatomy of patients awaiting surgery to practice feathering catheters and medical devices through bends, nooks and crannies of the blood vessels, and deploy medical devices in spines and the circulatory system as they maneuver past muscles, bones, blockages and other obstructions that might come into play.

“During practice interventions, we analyze everything,” Ionita said, “because we can go into these models with sensors” to measure blood flow, blood pressure and more.

“You can create a model that says, ‘Here’s somebody who has a carotid artery that’s 50% (blocked) and he’s 50 years old,’ ” Ionita said. “Or we can say, ‘Here is a young person in their 20s, and is fully compliant, no stenosis or whatever.’ And those mechanical properties are translated by the printer.

“Even cadaver donors can’t do that.”

The goal is to lower the rate of complications “and be successful in one shot during a procedure,” said Ionita, who supervises up to 10 graduate biomedical engineering students, and roughly 20 undergraduate, graduate and medical school students.

Those who pay close attention to 3D models and other medical research based on data from patients treated in the building include Dr. Elad Levy, co-director of the Gates Vascular Stroke Center; Dr. Adnan Siddiqui, director of neurological and stroke services at Kaleida Health; and Dr. Vijay Iyer, medical director of cardiology and the Structural Heart Program at Kaleida. All three have ties to UB.

Even here, Ionita said, physician-scientists and other researchers see the damage that smoking, high blood pressure and living in ZIP codes where poverty is rampant can create complications that lead to worse health and surgical outcomes.

Eric Wozniak

Eric Wozniak, a senior research and development technician in the Idea to Reality lab at the Jacobs Institute, uses a microscope as he works to improve catheter technology.

Doctors and staff improve treatment protocols and surgical prowess with help from those who work on the top half of the building for UB and the Jacobs Institute. The latter is named for Dr. Lawrence D. Jacobs, a Buffalo neurosurgeon who helped develop treatments for multiple sclerosis.

Four years after Jacobs died in 2001, his brother Jeremy, chair of the Delaware North Cos. and the UB Council, approached the university about creating a lasting memorial for the respected physician. He later signed on to the concept of creating a multidisciplinary vascular center, starting with a $10 million donation for the institute that bears the family name.

The institute includes an atrium, café and glass-walled spaces that overlook procedure rooms on the floor below. It has 50 employees, including more than 30 biomedical and electrical engineers, who seek company-sponsored research funding, help collect data and make prototypes for clinical trials, and work with researchers to publish their work in medical journals.

In 2016, the institute was designated a 3D Printing Center of Excellence in Health Care by Israeli-based Stratasys Ltd., a leading 3D printing-maker. In early 2018, it created a proof-of-concept Idea to Reality Center, known as i2R, to further improve medical devices and surgical techniques in the vascular space.

“This is our secret sauce lab,” said Siddiqui, Jacobs Institute CEO. “There’s nothing we do downstairs that we could not do better.”

Improving medical devices and technology

This is a device designed and built in the Idea 2 Reality lab at the Jacobs Institute in Buffalo. The lab improves medical devices and technology used in vascular procedures and treatments.

Dr. Carlos Pena, who ran the FDA Neurologic Devices Division for 15 years, joined the institute staff last year to improve the chances technology conceived and designed with help from the institute gets to market.

“Every company wants to talk to him,” Siddiqui said. “He tells them what testing needs to be done. Some of that gets done in-house. A lot of it goes to the university or, when they have a clinical trial, that gets done downstairs – so the entire ecosystem is functioning, I think better than Nick Hopkins ever imagined.”

Lang, the cardiologist, doesn’t miss her former workday commutes. She loves the design and location of the building that sets the standard for vascular care.

Most of her days mix benchtop research in her lab and patient visits and procedures on the floors below. When there is time, she can visit her husband, Fraser Sim, neuroscience director and associate professor at the medical school.

“Because we’re in such close proximity to the Jacobs School now, we’re also really able to engage the medical students earlier in their careers and encourage more research,” Lang said. “And because we’re so close to the hospital, we’re able to involve medical residents and fellows in our research projects much more than ever before.”

Research lab

University at Buffalo medical school postdoctoral research associate Touba Tarvirsizadeh focuses on cardiac research in the lab of Dr. Jennifer Lang at the UB Clinical and Translational Research Center in Buffalo.

She has spent a decade trying to find better ways for a stem cell derivative that can withstand an immune response and rejuvenate heart tissue without major complications, a result that could help patients recover from a heart attack and lessen the strain of heart failure.

Four years ago, Lang and her doctoral student researcher, Kyle Mentkowski, discovered a way that lowered the immune response in mice that received the derivative.

Mentkowski, now a post-doctorate researcher at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital, was talking with another group of student researchers in the building when they thought it might be a good idea to bring Dr. Jessica Reynolds, an immunologist and UB medical school associate professor, into the research.

The collaboration created robust, reproducible results in mice models, Lang said, and the start of testing in human immune cells she and her colleagues hope can benefit patients within the next decade.

Collaborators now regularly get together to chat at the Jacobs Institute.

“The NIH seems very interested in this as a potential clinical therapy,” Lang said, “but the field as a whole is still in the beginning stages of understanding where we need to go next.”

Doctor collaboration

Dr. Aaron Hoffman, left, University at Buffalo medical school associate professor of surgery, and Dr. Kenneth Snyder, UB associate professor of neurosurgery, chat during a break in the Jacobs Institute atrium.

UB researchers have shared some of their findings with researchers making similar inroads elsewhere, she said, and the work spawned other collaborations with Reynolds, her research team and scientists in the UB Department of Biomedical Engineering.

“This type of unplanned interaction is not a unique occurrence in this building,” Lang said. “Our story is just one of many.”

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