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Spotlight Iowa City: The engineer of human valves

BY SAMANTHA HONKEN | OCTOBER 12, 2009 7:20 AM

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Andy Wagner is living life at large on a very small scale.

The fourth-year Ph.D. candidate spends most of his time in his research lab in the UI Pharmacy Building conducting cellular-level tissue engineering for heart-valve replacements.

Test tubes and microscopes scattered the counter tops in his lab, while several machines containing his ground-breaking research hummed and whispered away quietly.

Wagner, a 26-year-old with full black beard, reclined comfortably in jeans and a cotton T-shirt, describing in layman’s terms how he and his colleagues are on the forefront of leading tissue-engineering research.

The process is quite complicated.

Essentially, Wagner removes an aorta from a sheep’s heart and isolates cells in a test tube. He adds a cellulose scaffold, a narrow ladder of cellular material, into the tube and places the mixture into a bio-reactor machine. After the biodegradable cellulose piece disappears in roughly a month, Wagner is left with tissue that can be implanted in a human heart.

His research is especially important in pediatric heart-valve replacements, Wagner said, because the valve can develop at the same pace as a normal child’s body would grow. The current procedure available for children requires multiple replacement surgeries.

Both of the Galesburg, Ill., native’s parents work in medical fields — father Robert is a family doctor in Galesburg, and mother Cindy is a nurse.

So going into tissue engineering was a great way for Wagner to continue the tradition, he said.

“But right now, it’s a lot of work,” he said. He completed his undergraduate studies in biosystems engineering at Iowa State University, and he now spends at least five hours a day in the lab.

Robert Wagner said he’s excited about his son’s research.

“I’m out on the frontlines,” Robert Wagner said. “It’s great because Andy’s in the lab researching all the stuff we get to use.”

Dan Schenck, a second-year Ph.D. student who works with Wagner, said he has enjoyed working with his friend. Wagner also was a teaching assistant for a class of Schenck’s at the UI.

“It’s been fun, actually, he’s very bright and brings a lot of great experience to the lab,” Schenck said.

The passion Wagner possesses about his research beats in another realm of his heart: He loves sports.

He makes appearances at Kinnick Stadium, though not to back the black and gold.

“My love of tailgating overcomes my dislike of the Hawkeyes,” he joked, he spent around 12 hours tailgating at the Michigan game.

Back in the lab, though, Wagner will be busy whipping up his research over the coming years in the hopes of winning a different kind of victory.

“I’ve always been interested in working at the cellular level,” he said. “I always wanted to engineer body parts.”


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