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Center Stage on Medical Miracles

“My time with WPI theatre taught me how to teach myself, so I’m ready to meet whatever challenges come along.”

Mick Darling doesn’t like doing the same thing twice. That’s why he loved WPI.

Though Richard (Mick) Darling ’99 started out as a physics major, his studies took a dramatic turn when he discovered New Voices, WPI’s annual new plays festival, during his freshman year. “I love math and physics,” he says, “but I wouldn’t enjoy research. I need a lot of variety.”

Through New Voices, Darling worked as stage hand, actor, producer, and director. “I loved the work. There was no repetition, because we did so many new shows,” he says. “It’s amazing that this technological university has such a great theatre program.”

Now, six years after graduation, Darling is drawing upon his humanities degree and computer-aided design (CAD) experience to play a new starring role, this time as entrepreneur.

By capitalizing on his brother’s invention of a new type of tissue scaffold, Darling and his team stand to make a name for themselves in the emerging field of tissue engineering.

Andrew Darling, a doctoral student at Drexel University, and his Ph.D. advisor, Wei Sun, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and mechanics at Drexel, created the scaffolds at Drexel’s Computer-Aided Tissue Engineering (CATE) Laboratory. Tissue scaffolds—small, three-dimensional structures about half an inch long—are crucial in tissue engineering (TE), an emerging field in which researchers grow human tissues by placing living cells on scaffolds made of biodegradable polymer. TE could revolutionize organ transplants and enable such wonders as healing bones and repairing severely damaged skin. Already, Darling’s group has been recognized for their work; they won third place in Drexel’s Business Plan Competition last spring.

“I knew Andrew was on to something when I heard who was calling for the scaffolds,” Darling says. The National Institute of Standards and Technology, for example, asked for 900 scaffolds to help the institute establish tissue engineering benchmarks. Other research centers, from Shanghai to San Antonio, also placed orders for the new product, which they saw as far superior to existing scaffolds.

The problem, however, was that CATE is a laboratory, not a factory. The existing machines needed retooling to meet mass production demands.

Enjoying this novel opportunity, Darling examined Drexel’s machinery. “I thought it would be simple to modify the manufacturing equipment,” he says with a modest shrug.

Andrew and Professor Sun agreed. Mick’s assessment showed that nearly everything they needed—from computers, to vibration prevention tables, to 3-D positioning equipment—is available off-the-shelf. Too, the team’s mouthwatering market assessment showed several untapped areas for the manufacturing technology—a $30.8 million annual research scaffold market, plus $160 million per year for industrial biotech applications. Future clinical uses for tissue engineering are expected to be worth greater than $350 billion annually.

Knowing they have the manufacturing edge, the team decided to move fast.They call their newly formed, dual companies BioStrut, after the strands, or struts, of bio-compatible polymer that form their waffle-like creations.

Mick Darling plays a bridging role as chief operating officer for both concerns. BioStrut LLC will do research and consulting on scaffold technologies. Andrew Darling is CEO, and Sun is chief technology officer. The other company, tentatively named BioStrut Inc., will manufacture the products. A new CEO will run this show.

BioStrut’s seemingly assured success lies in the fact that good scaffolds are hard to find. Most researchers have to create their own, with varying results that slow down their progress. Many rely on the process of seeding, with salt, a plastic-like molded form. The salt leeches through the material when water is added, creating random holes and robbing scientists of much-needed architectural control.

This control is critical, since cells have to migrate along specific paths through the scaffold to properly form tissue, whether heart, liver, or bone.

“BioStrut’s precision extrusion deposition process creates infinitely customizable tissue scaffolds,” says Darling. In manufacture, a small extrusion head and a 3-D positioning system deposit a strand of polymer one-tenth the width of a hair strand, which hardens as it cools. New layers are deposited one atop another, forming three-dimensional structures.

Keen on using their competitive edge to its fullest advantage, the BioStrut team is marching ahead. As early as the spring of 2006, researchers will be able to order their scaffolds online, choosing from among three or four standard configurations, or specifying custom jobs.

“The work I’m doing with BioStrut is plenty varied for me,” Darling says, smiling, “from the manufacturing to the marketing and sales of a cutting-edge product. I’m loving it, and I feel confident. My time with WPI theatre taught me how to teach myself, so I’m ready to meet whatever challenges come along.”

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Last modified: Dec 20, 2005, 17:31 EST
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