Sean Wu Receives NIH Director's Pioneer Award

Oct October 22 Wed 2014

Sean Wu, MD, PhD, assistant professor of cardiovascular medicine, was one of this year’s recipients of the NIH Director’s Pioneer Award. The award is designed to fund highly innovative approaches that have the potential to affect a broad area of biomedical or behavioral research, and provides researchers with a five-year, $2.5 million grant.

“I'm ecstatic to be given this award.” Wu said. “The best thing about this grant is that it really gives you a lot of flexibility on how you would pursue the science that you want to do, which is the intention of these high risk/high reward mechanisms.”

The Pioneer Award selection process involves an application submission in the fall, followed by a panel interview at the NIH in Bethesda, MD for 25 finalists. Applicants are then notified by phone in September if they have been awarded the grant. When Dr. James Anderson, NIH common fund director, called to inform Wu of their interest in funding his research, Wu was relieved. “I felt pretty good at the end of the interview process in April, but you don’t really know. So, when you haven’t heard anything come September, you start thinking, ‘Oh, I must not have gotten it.’”

Early Research

Wu, who earned his MD and PhD at Duke University, began his academic career at Stanford, where he studied mechanical engineering and biology. During his cardiology fellowship at Harvard University, Wu became interested in the use of embryonic stem cells to generate new heart muscle cells. With support from an NIH Director’s New Innovator Award that he received in 2008, Wu pursued this focus in his lab at Massachusetts General Hospital: “we studied, side by side, how the heart is formed in the early developing embryo and how we can adapt the process to create new heart tissues using stem cells.”

Drawing from his engineering background, Wu began to investigate “tissue engineering strategies to incorporate stem cells into constructs that could then be put back into damaged hearts.” The development of induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells – cells that can grow into a variety of different cell types, moved Wu closer to the idea of, “Can we use this perfectly genetically matched cell to try to treat patients with disease?”

Wu returned to the Stanford campus in 2012, after joint recruiting efforts from the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine, the Department of Medicine, the Cardiovascular Institute, and the Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine. Since that time he’s continued to look at heart development, stem cell biology and heart tissue engineering, as well as the possibility of putting iPS cells into a product that could treat people with heart disease, possibly replacing the mechanical devices that are now in use.

Director’s Pioneer Award

Wu’s funding will enable him to explore different ways to “harmonize cells and biological materials with mechanical/synthetic materials like metal and plastics that are being used right now for mechanical support devices to generate something that would represent a hybrid.”

Wu plans to use 3D printers to incorporate and organize multiple materials – including cells, biomaterials and synthetic materials – to print a structure “that has precisely defined placement of where the synthetics are and where the biomaterials are, in order to create the functionality that you need.”

Wu hopes that this research will minimize the chance for complications that often occur with pure synthetic hardware. “Hardware pieces can be somewhat cumbersome,” he said. “They need battery and wire coming from outside, the battery may potentially run out, and the interaction between blood and foreign material inside your body means that you can get complications like blood clots and infections.”

Wu envisions a multitude of possibilities for a hybrid interface between synthetic and biological materials. “If these principles can be established, then there may be lots of applications down the road -- not just in cardiovascular diseases, but in bone diseases, kidney diseases, or organ replacement products. You can envision possibilities where you can create, by 3D-printing, devices that replace key functions that the body has lost.“

Looking Forward

For his next step, Wu is now “just getting going on the work.” His lab is collaborating with the 3D printing core on the Stanford campus to test a few design patterns for the devices they are trying to make.

Wu credits the many Stanford institutions he’s worked with through the years, including the Department of Medicine’s Cardiology Division, the Cardiovascular Institute, the Stem Cell Institute, and the Child Health Research Institute. “Each has been involved in either my recruitment to Stanford or in the support that I’ve received subsequently.”

Sean Wu