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MSU researcher regenerates tissues in humans to treat cardiovascular disease and cancer

Russ White
Aitor Aguirre

Aitor Aguirre is an assistant professor at MSU's Department of Biomedical Engineering. He's part of Chris Contag's team at IQ. He works on understanding how human tissues respond to injury and how they regenerate when they are injured, and he identifies molecules that can be helpful for activating those processes in humans so that new clinical therapeutic strategies for treating humans can be created. And he studies human diseases in vitro using stem cells.

Russ White:Aitor Aguirre is an assistant professor at MSU's Department of Biomedical Engineering. He's part of Chris Contag's team at IQ, too. Aitor, thanks for joining us today.

Aitor Aguirre:Hi, Russ. Very nice meeting you. I'm very happy to be here today.

Russ:So describe for us your research. What do you do?

Aitor:We work on understanding how human tissues respond to injury and how they regenerate when they are injured, and we identify molecules that can be helpful for activating those processes in humans so that we can create new clinical therapeutic strategies for treating humans. And we also study diseases, human diseases in vitro, using stem cells.

Russ:So, does your work lead to practical benefits and when might that be?

Aitor:So the practical benefits will be very broad in general, I would say. The practical benefits would be things like therapies that help you recover better from injuries, and many diseases are actually injuries in your tissues. Like for example, heart disease or cardiovascular problems. Or even it might have implications for cancer, too, and other settings, like kidney injuries, et cetera. There are many types of injuries.

And when we would see some results? Well, that depends on the specific tissue, and it depends on the specific type of disease, so it's complicated. But I can tell you that some of the results, we are already seeing them. For example, a couple of years ago we published a paper on heart regeneration, and there's a company that picked up the intellectual property that derived from that paper. And right now this company's a start up, and it's working on creating a cure for cardiac disease based on that. So it's already happening. It's not something in the future. I'm not going to tell you it's going to be in 25 years or in 15 years. It's happening now.

How good it's going to be? It will improve over time. So this first round of therapies might not be the most efficient one or the best one, but it's certainly starting to happen right now. I could give an example, like for example, when Jonas Salk discovered the polio vaccine. Everybody knows that he made the polio vaccine. What they don't know is that the polio vaccine that he made was actually very, very dangerous, and that is was superseded in a couple of years, like two or three years, by a new vaccine developed by another scientist. And that's the one that was used to immunize most of the children.

But just the fact that Jonas Salk was able to prove that that was possible, that was a big step. So that's the way science works.

Russ:Good science builds on other good science. So, Aitor, what's next? What are some of the research horizons you're after?

Aitor:So we are working towards understanding better cardiac injury. We want to study specifically how, for example, the new system reacts to injury settings in the heart. We are also interested in understanding how cancer cells hijack the mechanisms for proliferation and for survival in cells to become more aggressive. We are also in interested in studying metabolic diseases in the heart. Like for example, sometimes these are genetic diseases, and we use genetic diseases as a model because their phenotypes, the way the disease progresses is very strong. So it's easier to work on it.

And then the knowledge that we acquire from these diseased cells, we can apply it to more common human situations, something like heart disease, for example. That is one of the most common diseases in the world, actually. So, those are some of the things that we are looking forward to in the next couple of years.

Russ:And Aitor, talk about what Chris has put together at IQ with the collaboration and the breaking down the barriers, just talk about that IQ ethos a bit. And I'm sure that's part of what attracted you to MSU.

Aitor:Absolutely. So I came to MSU and I met with Chris, and he explained to me what he wanted to do at IQ, and he totally got me on that. He convinced me 100 percent. I'm very happy to say that, because I love working with Chris and when I hear good ideas, I like to be part of them.

What Chris wants to make, as far as I understand, is an excellence center on biomedical research and biomedical engineering by bringing top researchers all over the country, bring people with different kinds of expertise and just put them together. And you would say it's a little bit like a cocktail, you put all of them together and then you shake it and see what happens. And as everybody knows, cocktails can be pretty good. The sum of the parts is better than the parts before, there's synergy there.

And this is all about synergy, it's about putting people with different skills together and see what happens. And many times, as a scientist, you are interested in the problem, and you say, "Okay, I want to attack this problem," but you don't know how because you don't have the tools. So you know the problem, you understand it from a biomedical perspective, let's say. But you need tools that you don't have, and you don't know how to create them. And you think, "Well, if I had the help of an engineer I could probably solve this problem, but without it, it's very difficult."

So that's where IQ fills the gap. That's what we are trying to do. We are trying to put all these people together so they can actually jump these gaps in their training and make something better out of it.

Russ:So, Aitor Aguirre, summarize for us again your research and what you hope to do with that work.

Aitor:Our research is aimed towards regenerating tissues in humans and specifically to treat cardiovascular disease or cardiovascular related disorders. We also have an interest in cancer and understanding how cancer progresses. So we work on cardiovascular regeneration, and we want to improve how tissue regenerates. Not only the heart tissues are of our interest, but we fundamentally focus on the heart right now. Because the heart is the first cause of death in the developed world ahead of cancer. 
The second interest is also cancer, and understanding how cancer progresses and steals the pathways to become more aggressive. And we also have an interest in pediatric disorders related to the heart, congenital heart diseases, for example. So those are the things that we are looking forward to in the future. 

Russ:Well, Aitor, thank you for telling me about your exciting research, and all the best moving forward.

Aitor:Thank you so much. 

Russ:That's Aitor Aguirre, he's an assistant professor at Michigan State University's Department of Biomedical Engineering. He's part of the IQ team, which is MSU's institute for quantitative health sciences and engineering.  

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