Institute to Grow Human Tissue and Organs May Bring Jobs to Manchester

Dec 22, 2016

Manchester Millyard and the Merrimack
Credit PSNH / Flikr

The Department of Defense has awarded 80 million dollars to fund a new Bio Research and Manufacturing Institute in Manchester. The institute will focus on bio-manufacturing tissue and organs, particularly for those in the armed services, and plans to establish New Hampshire as a hub for scientific innovation.

The coalition running this institute includes DEKA Research & Development Corporation, Dartmouth-Hitchcock, and the University of New Hampshire.

UNH will lead the national education and workforce development activities of the effort. For more on that we turn to Dean Mike Decelle of UNH’s Manchester campus.

The transcript has been edited for clarity. 

Let’s talk a little bit about the science of this first.  Are we really talking about growing human organs in a lab in Manchester?

Well, we’re talking about growing human tissues and/or organs in laboratories across the country, including in Manchester. So this is a nationwide effort that is comprised of a series of universities and commercial businesses, and the idea of Manchester is to be the organizer, convener, and headquarters for this virtual institute.

That sounds like a big deal for Manchester in terms of job. Is that true?

I think it has the great potential to be that. I think it has the potential to be the home of a lot of manufacturing activity as the technology that the institute will be developing matures from, in some cases, a very early stage to a commercial phase.

Are you able to put a number in terms of that job potential?

Being the dean of the college, it’s a little bit hard for me to make predictions about jobs in the town. I think Dean Kamen, who was really the spearhead and leader of the group that ended up winning the bid, I think he’s indicated that we’re looking at perhaps around 100 within the next year or so, and beyond that it will really be a function of what tissues and organs look promising, and how quickly they come to market.

And UNH will lead the National Education and Workforce Development Activities of this effort. What exactly will that consist of?

Well, the idea is that in order to have a strong, vibrant, and successful tissue bio-fabrication industry, you’re going to need workers at all levels to staff and run that type of operation. So you need factory line workers. They’ll be different than the factory line workers that you see in other industries here in the U.S., but we will need to train factory workers to work on a bio-fabrication line rather than, say, going back 150 years to a textile line here in Manchester. By the same token, we’ll need higher level employees to develop manufacturing processes – the machines and equipment that will do the fabrication – and beyond that, the graduate and post graduate workers to advance the science and technology.

So whatever potential there happens to be might be good for workers at all levels, workers who need basic training and also those who have advance degrees?

Absolutely. This is by no means a baccalaureate and above activity. And a core part of our strategy, and I think something that distinguished our proposal to the government, is that we want to develop our workforce from high school graduates all the way through to post graduate. The community college system of the state was a key partner in this, and so this is not simply high-end workers. This is intended to cut across and impact the lives of workers at all levels.

And Dean Kamen of DEKA Research, who’s a huge part of this effort, made mention of the fact that this is happening in the Millyard of Manchester, which years and years ago was a center for innovation during the boom of the textile industry. And now innovation is coming back.

It is. And I think if you look even at the Millyard of today, Peter, there’s a huge amount of activity down here. But I will also say most of it is development phase or research phase work, at least in the tech sector of the Millyard. And what’s been missing still even to this day is a strong, vibrant manufacturing sector. I think that’s what this institute has the potential to change, which is to have products that don’t find their way to foreign countries for manufacturing, but can stay right home here because institutes like UNH are again developing the education and workforce development strategies that train workers to make the products right here at home.

The Department of Defense awarded 80 million dollars for this effort. They’re very concerned about making sure tissues and organs are available for soldiers who may be wounded or troops of any branch of the military who may be wounded in combat. Does that mean the Department of Defense would be the primary beneficiary of the results of this technology?

No, I don’t think so. I think like so many things, we can think of a lot of technologies that had their origins through some government agency.  The internet, for example, started in DARFA, part of the Department of Defense. But they found their way and affected the lives of everyday Americans, and I think even though this is in large part motivated by helping to rebuild and repair soldiers and veterans, it inevitably is going to impact all Americans.

Dean speaks very passionately about the extent to which millions of Americans suffer from end-stage renal failure. And kidneys, although they’re complicated, they’re probably one of the easier organs to actually fabricate. And so I think the annual price tag for dialysis – end-stage renal dialysis – is on the order of 100 billion dollars a year here in the U.S., and so just a single organ development could have a huge impact on the lives of millions of Americans.

So what’s the next step to bring this project into the real world?

Well, I would really refer to Dean as the leader of the institute to give you the details on that, but I think after we get done celebrating, we’ll be sitting down to lay down a detailed project road map. We need to bring on additional people to help us actually operationalize the plan that we’ve proposed. Then it will be a process of laying out timelines and really starting the process of engaging our partners and looking at the technologies in priority order based on their level of maturity and the kind of impact that they’ll have. So it’s going to be a fairly detailed operation. There are lots of good ideas out there, but we need to be very thoughtful about which ones we pursue first, and in what different stage of development they’re really at.