Materials Researchers Find Opportunity in Biomedicine

Over the last few years, biomaterials research—see this companion article for a definition of the field—has undergone what two of the researchers who Science Careers spoke to called a “maturation of the field,” as the science has become more sophisticated and progressed toward the clinic. Over these last few years, biomaterials researchers have become more established in their research settings and gained more control over research agendas, says John P. Fisher, a professor in the Tissue Engineering & Biomaterials Laboratory at the University of Maryland, College Park. Meanwhile, writes Hak-Joon Sung, a biomaterials researcher at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, in an e-mail, “Not only me, but leading biomaterials scientists agree to the fact that clinical translation has become a major goal for technical development in the field.”

“The professional outlook for a new investigator entering academia as a biomaterials engineer or scientist is quite challenging.” —Michele Marcolongo

As a result of this maturation, funding opportunities have broadened, with researchers increasingly turning to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for support for the more applied aspects of their research portfolio. Unfortunately, that shift does not seem to have significantly improved their odds of getting funding. In fact, funding prospects in this scientifically and clinically exciting field appear to have darkened.

Meanwhile, the field’s progress toward clinical applications has given rise to increased private-sector activity, especially companies spun off from academic labs. But here, too, a dearth of investment seems to be stifling scientific, commercial, and clinical advances, and, very likely, yielding fewer opportunities for biomaterials scientists to establish careers.

For NIH, a (slowly) growing portfolio

That’s a common pattern. It would be “correct to say that biomaterials research had advanced to the point that some biomaterials [researchers] are currently employed in research supported by NIH,” writes David Brant, biomaterials program director for NSF, in an e-mail to Science Careers. Michele Marcolongo, biomaterials professor and senior associate vice provost for translational research at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, says that researchers use NSF support to do basic biomaterials research, but “once they have identified a biomedical target and are ready to go after a particular disease or injury or some clinical challenge, they go to the NIH.” Marcolongo is a member of NIH’s Center for Scientific Review and has served on the Nanotechnology Study Section.

“Nowadays, biomaterials research applied [to] stem cell delivery and differentiation is a rising field due to potential for clinical translation,” Sung adds. “Also, biomaterials can be designed to change their structure and properties in response to body condition—based on changes in pH, temperature, oxidative status, and blood flow. … People who work in these areas would be more likely to receive NIH funding for them than in the past.”

Opportunities, some missed

Now that they’ve made inroads into the clinic, biomaterials scientists are being held back by the same federal funding woes that have frustrated the rest of the biomedical research community. In biomaterials research, as in other fields, flat funding doesn’t just mean that scientists aren’t able to run all the experiments that they’d like to run. It also means that, at a time when prospects for clinical applications are especially bright—and when many young scientists are seeking to enter the field—fewer opportunities are available for young scientists to get established.

Meanwhile, biomaterials training programs are flourishing. “We’ve been training a lot of biomaterials researchers and a lot of students are interested in studying biomaterials. It’s a very popular track for materials students to follow,” Marcolongo says. Consequently, “the professional outlook for a new investigator entering academia as a biomaterials engineer or scientist is quite challenging.”

Biomaterials scientists have two traditional funding mechanisms to choose from when starting a lab, Marcolongo says: NSF’s Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program and NIH’s Exploratory/Developmental Research Grant Award (R21). Early in their careers, Fisher and Sung were both supported by NSF CAREER awards. Marcolongo won a grant from NIH’s Small Grant Program (R03), which is similar to an R21.

In the past, Marcolongo says, private foundations provided additional funding for young investigators. But those funds, too, have declined in recent years, she says.

A case study

Biomaterials researcher Steven Little started his lab at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania in 2006, just a year after earning his Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. He was able to benefit from the support of several nonprofits: the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation, the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation, and the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation. He also received early support from an NIH Career Development Award. But, like Marcolongo, Little has seen some of these support sources dry up. “Some foundations that used to support young investigators either do not exist anymore or have dramatically scaled back their programs,” Little writes in an e-mail to Science Careers. “Funding seems to be reduced across the board.”

Little himself made it into the field in time. In late 2011, the Society for Biomaterials announced him as the winner of its 2012 Young Investigator Award. The University of Pittsburgh awarded him tenure earlier this year.

The private sector

While it’s true that soft funding has limited progress in biomaterials, it is also true, ironically, that advances in the biomedical application of biomaterials are still outpacing funding, Marcolongo says. And according to one venture investor, the private sector has been too wary about financial risks to bridge the gap.

Paul Howard, a founding partner of Mediphase Venture Partners in Newton, Massachusetts, is sober about biomaterials start-up prospects. “It has generally been a market of finding onesies and twosies,” he says, meaning that commercial successes are exceptions and not the rule. Mediphase has one biomaterials success story in its portfolio: Relypsa, which designs nonabsorbed polymeric drugs for cardiovascular and renal diseases. But other biomaterials companies that Mediphase has invested in have failed. Howard says that many of his fellow venture investors have a similar view of the market.

The result is that, for now at least, private-sector employment prospects are likely to be limited. Perhaps this situation will change as the economy improves, but for now, biomaterials, like many other areas of biomedical science, seems ready to make great strides in the lab and in the clinic but is held back by inadequate public- and private-sector support.

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