Pitt's Little Lab strives to enhance body's own healing

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Steven Little wants to make medicine as smart as the human body.

When something goes wrong with our bodies today, medicine's solution is often to cut it out, burn it out or treat it with medication.

But the goal of the Little Lab at the University of Pittsburgh's Swanson School of Engineering is to enhance the body's already highly intelligent healing mechanisms, Mr. Little said in an interview last week.

Last month, the national Society for Biomaterials announced that Mr. Little, 34, who has a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, had received its Young Investigator Award for 2012.

Since coming to Pitt six years ago, the chemical engineering professor has pulled in more than $4.5 million in grants and has mentored nearly 50 researchers.

Much of his lab's work is focused on developing synthetic substances that can deliver drugs or natural substances inside the body at precise places and times.

One example is work his lab is doing on animals to enhance wound healing, an especially critical issue for injured soldiers.

When an injury heals, the body needs to grow new blood vessels, but it emits different signals at separate times to accomplish that. Mr. Little has designed synthetic materials that dissolve at different rates so that the proteins and other substances needed to create new vessels are released at the right moment.

The lab is also working to prevent rejection of transplanted limbs by recruiting the body's immune system for the task.

In work with rodents, his team has transplanted limbs along with tiny microspheres that release a chemical that attracts immune cells known as regulatory T cells.

Those cells normally shut off an immune response, and the goal in this case is to keep the lab rats' bodies from rejecting the foreign tissue in the transplanted limbs.

The Little Lab is using the same technique to fight the inflammation of periodontal disease, one of the most widespread maladies in the world. Researchers have discovered that serious gum disease is associated with susceptibility to heart attacks, strokes and premature births, so finding an effective therapy could have far-reaching effects.

In work so far with rodents and dogs, his teams have been able to recruit regulatory T cells that stave off much of the inflammation in the gums.

Mr. Little said the Young Investigator Award, given to only one younger researcher in the world each year, is "an enormous honor for this lab."

He hopes it will also be another step toward his goal of making medicine smarter.

"If you take a pill, the signal it gives to the body is kind of everywhere, sort of like a loudspeaker repeating the same word over and over again. What we are trying to do is make the therapy more like having a conversation across the table."

Mark Roth: mroth@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1130. First Published January 9, 2012 5:00 AM


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