Evolving at Hilton Head

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In February 1997, when an avid community of researchers was invited by Bob Nerem to Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, for a conference to discuss their work in bioengineering and tissue engineering, they brought with them cutting-edge science and the high hopes that it could change the world. 

In mid March 2016, when a larger group of researchers met on Hilton Head for the 20th annual conference, which has come to be known as the Regenerative Medicine Workshop, the science was still cutting edge, and hopes were still high, bolstered now by a sense of purpose harvested from two decades of experience. 

“The workshop has evolved, like the science,” says Nerem, founding director of the Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience at the Georgia Institute of Technology, who launched the annual gathering of scientists, engineers, clinicians and business people.

Nerem, who with his wife Marilyn had a home on Hilton Head at the time, says he got to thinking, “you know, this is a pretty nice place. I wonder if our research friends from around the country would enjoy coming here for a long weekend to be together and network and share their latest results.” 

As it turned out, they really did enjoy it, and every spring they keep coming back. A few, like Nerem and current Petit Institute Director Bob Guldberg, never seem to miss the workshop, which has become such a part of the anticipated academic-year rhythm, that this landmark anniversary sort of snuck up on them.

“I was honestly shocked when I realized this was the 20th anniversary of the 
first regenerative medicine workshop,” says Guldberg, professor in the Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering. 

“The longevity of the workshop is a testament to the people who come and present their work each year as well as the accelerating momentum of the regenerative medicine field and industry,” he adds. “Its remarkable when you consider the great science that has been shared and the relationships that have been built through this meeting.”

The science and the relationships (both personal and professional) were enough to draw a number of participants who attended the first workshop back to the 20th (March 16-19 at Sea Pines Resort), researchers like Abhay Pandit, who made the trip from the National University of Ireland, Galway, where he is director of the Network of Excellence for Functional Biomaterials.

Pandit, who was with Kendall Company when he first registered for the conference in 1997, led off this year’s panel discussion entitled, ‘Translational Challenges and Opportunities: Experience from the Front Line.”

“Events like this workshop are a collection point of reflection,” he says. “With every new discovery or new innovation, there are new sets of challenges. How we overcome them is a story by itself. I think gatherings like this empower our community to lobby our various funding agencies, to say, ‘these are our challenges, and there is hope in what we do.’”

Buddy Ratner, a keynote speaker at the first Hilton Head workshop, delivered the opening keynote at the 20th, covering three main topics: a celebration of 20 years, a clear-headed overview of the regenerative medicine field, and a perspective on prospects for the future.

“There has been some brilliant research and some of what we’re doing right now could lead to big things,” says Ratner, professor of chemical engineering and bioengineering at the University of Washington, where he directs the Research Center for Biomaterials. 

He points out, for example, that scientific discoveries useful for re-growing a limb already have been made, and that maybe it’s time to develop the technology to exploit these discoveries.

“Re-growing a limb,” Ratner says. “What could be more regenerative than that?”

Michael Hiles, vice president for research and clinical affairs at Cook Biotech, also brought long-term perspective, having attended the first and now the 20th workshops, and some in between.

“We’re still asking some of the same questions, but significant progress has been made,” he says. “There are a lot of cell-based and acellular products on the market now that weren’t back then.”

An expert on biomaterials and biological scaffolds used in tissue engineering applications, Hiles has 30 patents and was starting his company under Cook’s influential umbrella 20 years ago.

“The right place at the right time to start a biotech company from scratch,” he says. Since then, he says, Cook’s extracellular matrix (ECM) tissue grafts have treated millions of patients.

Another leading researcher in biomaterials, Karen Christman from the University of California-San Diego, offered a keynote presentation on “Injectable Biomaterials for Treating Cardiovascular Disease.” It’s an area of research she’s been immersed in since her first Hilton Head presentation, in 2003, when she was still a graduate student. 

“I showed for the first time that you could use an injectable material to improve cardiac function without the addition of cells,” Christman says. “And I was extremely nervous. But Linda Griffith helped me get over my fear of public speaking.”

Griffith, who received her undergraduate degree from Georgia Tech and is now a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was the Nerem Lecturer, delivering the workshop’s final presentation, “Move Over, Mice: How Integration of Systems Biology with Organs-on-Chips will Humanize Therapeutic Development.”

Her lecture closed shop on what was actually a two-fold event for Georgia Tech at Hilton Head, beginning with the International Advanced Course on Regenerative Medicine Manufacturing (March 12-16 at Sea Pines).

This was the second advanced course, an event that was first held in Portugal in 2013. An international collaboration between Georgia Tech, the Instituto Superior Técnico in Lisbon, Portugal, and the University of Loughborough in the United Kingdom, the purpose of the course is to train pre-doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows in the translation of cell-based technologies for the large-scale production into clinical therapies.  

“Getting these young people together to network leads to future collaborations, and that leads to future growth of the field,” says Joaquim Cabral, from the Instituto Superior Técnico, who hosted the first advanced course in 2013.

Sean Palecek, professor at the University of Wisconsin who chaired the organizing committee for the Hilton Head advanced course, calls the event, “a unique opportunity for trainees, grad students, and postdocs to get exposure to the industrial side of cell manufacturing. I think bringing in more industry partners this time worked really well. That was a big hit with the trainees.”

As the advanced course concluded, a new era began for the Regenerative Medicine Workshop, which added a new sponsor this year in the Mayo Clinic, who joined fellow sponsors Georgia Tech, Emory University, the University of Georgia, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Wisconsin.  

“The workshop has evolved considerably, and its exciting to see how the meeting content has changed over time,” Guldberg says. “For example, 20 years ago topics like immunoengineering or cell manufacturing were not part of the discussion. The combination of beautiful venue, great partnerships, and exciting science make this workshop really unique and I’m already energized about the possibilities for next year.” 



Jerry Grillo
Communications Officer II
Parker H. Petit Institute for
Bioengineering and Bioscience


  • Workflow Status:Published
  • Created By:Jerry Grillo
  • Created:04/01/2016
  • Modified By:Fletcher Moore
  • Modified:10/07/2016


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