Material guy: toward artificial organs

Someday, might you have a polyester pancreas? Or heart? Or kidney? It isn’t out of the question, given the work of such scientists as Devin Barrett.

More than 100,000 people in the United States need organ transplants. More than 3,000 in North Carolina are on waiting lists. The problem: There just aren’t enough human organs to go around.

Barrett, who recently completed a doctorate in chemistry at UNC, invented new polyesters to create a material that someday might be used to make artificial organs. It’s just too early to tell which ones.

“This is very different from the polyester of the ‘70s,” he cautions.

In a petri dish, samples of the spongy material look like Chiclets floating in water. This field, inventing new materials for use in the human body, is called tissue engineering.

In creating the material, Barrett sought to solve problems with similar materials already approved by the Food and Drug Administration. For instance, Barrett’s material is all-natural and biodegradable, an idea he says he got from Valerie Ashby, Bowman and Gordon Gray Distinguished Term Professor of chemistry. He took her polymer synthesis class the first year of his doctoral studies.

“She introduced that, and I was immediately fascinated by it,” he says.

Barrett’s material is also easier to make and use than some materials on the market, he says. It won’t melt when exposed to the temperature of the human body, and Barrett can manipulate it so that cells do or don’t stick to it, depending on the need.

The next step is to study further all aspects of the materials, with a future goal of FDA approval.
Barrett is a 2010 recipient of an Impact Award, sponsored by UNC’s Graduate Education Advancement Board. Impact Awards recognize graduate students whose research provides special benefits to the citizens of North Carolina. Barrett also had a one-year dissertation fellowship in the Royster Society of Fellows, which provides financial support, professional development and learning opportunities to outstanding doctoral students.

With his dissertation adviser, assistant professor of chemistry Muhammad Yousaf, Barrett has had his research published in several journals. Yousaf said Barrett’s work has made him stand out in his discipline: “His research can help the field of tissue engineering become a more reliable alternative for patients suffering from organ failure.” Barrett was already researching tissue engineering before his father died less than a year ago. His organs were donated to eight people. “His heart went for research, and his tissue for burn victims,” Barrett said. “That gave me a better perspective on what I’m doing – bringing it down to a personal level and giving me a new appreciation of the work.”

Barrett will complete post-doctorate training at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. His options after that are wide open: academia, business, government.