The Power of Collaboration: A Look at Dr. Marvin J. Slepian
Dr. Marvin "Marv" J. Slepian has significant experience in converting concept to reality. Over his career he has developed and brought to the clinic a number of innovative technologies, using his unique and creative approach to biomedical problem solving. He has designed a number of stents, or scaffolds, for arteries, with unique properties that make them more responsive to the clinical situation – essentially "smart stents." Slepian is quick to point out that "all this occurred by virtue of vision in combination with collaboration and team building."
Slepian is known for many things around the UA campus. Besides being professor of medicine in the Division of Cardiology at the UA College of Medicine – Tucson, he holds standing in several colleges around campus, serving as professor and associate head of the Department of Biomedical Engineering in the UA College of Engineering and as a McGuire Scholar in the UA Eller College of Management. Most recently Slepian assumed another integrating role: director of the Arizona Center for Accelerated BioMedical Innovation, or ACABI.
Presently, Slepian's lab in the UA Sarver Heart Center is working on a wide array of collaborative efforts around campus, the country and the world. In collaboration with investigators at the University of Illinois, the Slepian Lab has been developing a broad class of new materials known as "stretchable electronics." Combining stretchy polymer plastic materials with thin electronics with redundant interconnects, novel "stretchable electronic polymer materials" allow the ability to sense and take action. In essence these are "smart materials," capable of responding to a stimulus or signal.
"These materials have a wide range of potential medical applicability – from wearable patches to internal implants," Slepian said. In a paper recently published in Science Advances, the collaborative team developed novel, thin, wearable blood flow sensors that use the principle of heat dissipation as a means of determining both the speed and direction of underlying blood flow. This technology could be put on the skin or on the surface of organs as patches to assess blood flow. Applied patches would help monitor circulation in patients with blocked arteries, diabetic neuropathy, heart failure and other conditions where impaired flow is a factor.
Slepian has been working for more than 25 years on biodegradable materials and implants. He developed the first biodegradable stent and tissue support system, known as endoluminal paving. Through even broader collaboration with the University of Illinois, Tufts University and Northwestern University, Slepian and his team have gone to the next level to incorporate electronics into these materials in a way that the entire system – polymer and electronics – will monitor and treat as necessary in targeted areas, and then ultimately biodegrade – hence yet another new class of materials that have been termed "transient electronic materials."
"When inside the body, these materials have the potential to detect dysfunction and disease, store and transmit information, providing self-feedback to initiate subsequent device-based repair and therapy. Take the case of a smart-paving stent layer in a blood vessel, if internal buildup develops on this smart device, it can respond by initiating processes to improve flow. It’s like a self-cleaning oven," said Slepian.
Long involved with research related to the artificial heart and ventricular assist devices, the lab also studies the effect on platelets created by "shear forces," or blood flow frictional forces generated by the high-speed pumping of these devices. The Slepian Lab has shown that these devices generate levels of shear way above that seen in the body. For example, an arterial blockage can generate shear up to five times normal, while a VAD generates shear 25 times greater than normal blood flow. "These super high levels of shear are extreme and lead to activation of platelets, making them more likely to initiate blood clots resulting in significant adverse events," said Slepian.
Platelets are one of the few cells in the body that do not repair themselves. In collaboration with investigators at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, Slepian and his team have developed a methodology that can calculate the amount of shear stress experienced by platelets in different situations. Using this approach they create a "signature or fingerprint" of a ventricular assist device with respect to clotting, which can help doctors predict which patients with ventricular assist devices, or VADs, are at greater risk for clot formation.
"This approach is applicable beyond VADs to stents, valves and even to diseased vasculature. It is a biomedical engineering/mechanical approach to precision medicine to understand and treat thrombotic risk at an individual level," Slepian said.
Slepian’s group recently published a paper in Biomedical Microdevices describing a microfluidic point-of-care device with which doctors can take a drop of blood and see how the patient is doing as far as anti-platelet therapies. In this new device the lab team created a channel that imparts the same level of shear as the device or condition that the patient has. In essence, it is a VAD on a chip. This will allow patients with implanted devices to test their blood under their actual flow conditions.
"Presently no device exists that measures platelet function at the bedside under personalized conditions," said Slepian. "Platelets don’t care if they're moving through a big device that's causing the shear or through a small channel." This work, too, is collaborative, involving groups at Stony Brook and Politechnico di Milano in Italy.
Beyond the Lab
Aside from his work in the lab, Slepian recently was elected president of the International Society for Rotary Blood Pumps.
"The field of mechanical circulatory support is a rapidly growing clinical and research area of advanced heart failure that utilizes mechanical devices to aid the failing circulation. As president, my goal is to bring together and unite the many groups working, often in silos, in this space – cardiologists, cardiac surgeons, biomedical engineers, hematologists and basic scientists – to address real-world problems and develop solutions," said Slepian. The organization voted to hold its 2017 annual meeting at the UA.
Slepian also has been active in fostering and educating on innovation. For the past five years he has taught a course at Eller College on innovation, translation and entrepreneurship. The course, ENTR 481/581, is about identifying unmet needs and addressing problems and solving them in a creative way.
He also is director of ACABI, launched in January 2015.
"ACABI is a University-wide creativity engine developed to further unlock the potential of the University of Arizona, with primary focus in the biomedical domain," said Slepian.
ACABI was designed to work closely with the biomedical faculty and students to identify unmet needs from the clinical domain, while at the same time identifying interesting University research and scientific developments that may be useful in developing solutions. As such, ACABI sits upstream from Tech Launch Arizona, channeling technology that may have commercialization potential via TLA.
"ACABI is all about collaboration – bringing together faculty and students from many disciplines around the University and beyond to innovate. ACABI is a key piece in the evolving 'innovation ecosystem' at the University of Arizona. ACABI tries to solve real problems and come up with practical solutions for the here and now. In order to make revolutionary changes you need to be able to collaborate,” said Slepian.
Slepian offers this bit of advice for aspiring innovators: "To be effective as an innovator, you need to always be adding to your knowledge base, even outside of one's traditional field of study – the more you know, the more you go. Further, you need to build bridges of collaboration, creating a network. No one individual or group has it all in today’s rapidly evolving complex world. However, working together across disciplines, great and fun things can happen."