Alan J. Russell is director of the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and serves as a professor of surgery with secondary appointments in the departments of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering, and Rehabilitation Sciences and Technology. Additionally, Russell is the executive director of the Pittsburgh Tissue Engineering Initiative and director of the National Tissue Engineering Center. He received his baccalaureate degree in Biochemistry and Applied Molecular Biology from the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (United Kingdom) in 1984, and his doctorate in Biological Chemistry from Imperial College, the University of London, in 1987. Russell has been a NATO Research Fellow in the laboratory of Dr. Alexander Klibanov at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-founded a successful biotechnology company, Agentase LLC. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Carnegie Award for Excellence in Science and Technology.
Alan Russell: Within our body, we have many natural mechanisms which allow us to heal. But they just take place rather slowly and possibly not quickly enough to defeat a disease. If we can understand how the body communicates with itself at a very scientific and biologic basis, then we can learn to intervene in that discussion that the body is having and get it to steer a different course. So, for instance, if one gets a cut, the typical way that one would heal is to create a scar. Ourselves, in the region of the cut, would hear a number of signals that say, create a scar. Regenerative medicine is all about taking many different kinds of tools from lots of different kinds of disciplines and disrupting the normal way that the body heals but allowing it to heal in, perhaps a more natural way so that the end result is, for instance, a scarless healing process, where you get healing that creates natural tissue but not scar tissue.
Big Think: Why did you decide to specialize in it?
Alan Russell: People, actually, are naturally excited by the idea of having a disease, a debilitating disease cured. So if you go to the doctor today, there are certain words which strike fear into your heart, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s. These are words that alter the course of your life. But there are other words which don’t, you know, a sore throat, some kind of infection. Technology is what is being used in the past to diminish that fear because if we can invent new ways of treating disease, we can resolve very tragic outcomes. So, I think these things are exciting. Regenerative medicine is exciting because it really represents a rather new paradigm in how to deliver health to people who are challenged. And what we’re able to do with regenerative medicine is actually cure disease rather than treating symptoms. And that, just inherently, is very exciting to people.