IBBME Innovators & Entrepreneurs – Rohin Iyer

“This is the place to be as far as Canada is concerned for biomedical engineering,” says Rohin Iyer as he sits in a plush leather chair in the MaRS Discovery building, which is located half way between the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering where he completed his PhD, and his place of business, Tissue Regeneration Therapeutics Inc. (TRT), a novel spin-off company begun by IBBME Professor Jed Davies.

Iyer works with stem cells, a rapidly emerging field of research in biomedical engineering. “It’s still in its infancy, but it holds the greatest promise,” explains Iyer.

Iyer, who began his doctoral work with Associate Professor Milica Radisic just after her hire at IBBME, has firsthand experience in just how new a field this is.

“I read one of [Milica’s] papers in my [Engineering Science undergraduate] regenerative medicine course. I contacted her almost independently, and found out she had been hired by IBBME. That was great. I was ecstatic that I could stay in Toronto and get educated by an MIT-trained professor.”

Iyer was interviewed by Professor Radisic by phone for his spot in the program, as she was still wrapping up her post-doctoral work at MIT. “I was her first student. In my case we were literally starting from ‘square one’,” he says of the experience, which taught him how to set up a world-class laboratory from the ground up.

“Rohin was my first student and he was absolutely critical in helping me set-up the lab and establish a culture of strong work ethics and innovation in the lab,” says Professor Radisic of her first trainee. “He also trained all of the subsequent students coming in. He is definitively a team player and an innovator,” she adds.

Iyer, who graduated from the biomedical engineering program in 2012, explains that the Radisic lab was invested in engineering cardiac tissues that could be vascularized before they are sutured into patients with damaged heart tissue. “The challenge,” explains Iyer, “is that as soon as when we implant the tissue into a patient, the tissue withers and doesn’t survive for very long. There’s not a lot of enough oxygen and nutrient transport, because the blood vessels don’t infiltrate the tissues on their own.”

Iyer and Radisic tackled this issue from a number of different perspectives, such as introducing electric field stimulation to the cells to encourage differentiation, or including more than one cell type in addition to cardiomyocytes (heart cells), such as endothelial cells and fibroblasts, that support formation of vascular-like networks, as well as fibroblasts, the introduction of which secrete growth factors. The hope was that the presence of these biomimetic cues would result in the creation of a “native-like” environment for cells to build their own vasculature: the perfect biomimicry.

Iyer calls the results of his study “unexpected but serendipitous, and very exciting,” adding, “one day the plan is to build an artificial heart by combining these approaches […] in a modular fashion to create thick, beating, vascularized tissues.” Though they showed success at implanting pre-cultured cardiac tissue in non-human models, Iyer cautions, “A lot more work has to be done […] before the therapy can be approved for use in actual humans.”

Even before his graduation, Iyer showed a keen interest in pursuing this pioneering field. “I found out about the position at TRT [Tissue Regeneration Therapeutics Inc.] from a fellow grad student. I wasn’t done with my PhD at the time, I was still defending, but I didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity or the research,” he says.

Hired with the help of the Ontario Centres of Excellence “First Jobs” grant, Iyer started work at TRT even before he defended – he worked at the early-stage biotechnology company during the day and completed his PhD research at night, managing to publish all of his work (a total of 14 papers and 1 book chapter) and successfully defending his thesis in the end.

Iyer’s “official role” at TRT is Research Scientist, but much like at Radisic’s lab, he gets to actively build a growing company in every way. The company has grown to 8 employees, which Iyer characterizes as being “like a family.”

“I’m lucky that I get to interact with the CEO of my company on a daily basis,” Iyer reports. “Your say in a small company has a lot more meaning and impact, and it’s also great because this is a Canadian company doing cutting-edge research.”

Tissue Regeneration Therapeutics TRT has been in the news lately for a study conducted by Dr. Armand Keating’s group using their patented HUCPVCs (Human Umbilical Cord PeriVascular Cells), in which that the authors concluded that the HUCPVCs are were significantly more effective in repairing heart tissues than the currently-used bone marrow-derived mesenchymal stem cells, the current standard for such stem cell therapies. What’s more, the HUCPVCs do not suffer from immune rejection issues, as currently-sourced cells may do. Jed Davies, President and CEO of TRT and core faculty at IBBME, holds a family of patents on the cells and their technology platforms.

Iyer notes that TRT is poised to file for clinical trial approval involving the use of umbilical cord cells which are harvested post-natally from umbilical cord tissues that would typically be incinerated as medical waste. “These cells represent a non-controversial and virtually inexhaustible source of stem cells,” says Iyer.

“This company is destined for greatness, because it’s made up of a great team of scientists and entrepreneurs,” Iyer says with pride. “It’s the only revenue-generating stem cell company in Canada [due to its licensing agreements], and I’m proud to be part of its continuing journey to success.”