Building on a researcher network and grants to reduce disparities, University of Michigan and UW lead NIH-funded center.

Simultaneously advancing biomaterials research with clinical applications and connecting researchers at well-resourced institutions with those rich in diverse talent is the aim of a new center. The National Institutes of Health is supporting this effort with a grant of $10.5 million.

The Humanity Unlocking Biomaterials (HUB) center, led by the University of Michigan and University of Washington, is designed to spur the development of biomaterials solutions that have potential in medical treatments. It will do this by bringing together researchers and providing seed funding to kickstart projects.

The proposal invokes a concept, known as centering margins, from the late Black feminist thinker bell hooks. She taught that, if rapid progress is to be made, those who occupy positions of power at the center of the group must partner with and make space for those at the periphery.

This works two ways in the field of biomaterials, according to HUB center leaders Lola Eniola-Adefeso, the Vennema Endowed Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Michigan, and Kelly Stevens, the James Chao-Yao Koh and Maria Lee Koh Endowed Engineering and Medicine Career Development Professor at the University of Washington.

“We have materials like hydrogels, degradable polymers, that we’re comfortable with, and we’ve been using those for two, three decades now, but there has been very limited translation,” said Eniola-Adefeso. “We make the case that we simply need to grab people who are at the margins of biomaterials, who could plug in and accelerate the research.”

They will seek out scientists and engineers whose work isn’t necessarily specific to biomaterials but could apply to the field. Their talents may be in computation and AI, active materials or synthetic proteins, for example. The bet is that new avenues for biomaterials are emerging and could progress quickly if the right connections are made.

The field of biomaterials, like many others in science, technology and medicine, has historically excluded Black, Latino and Indigenous individuals. Progress in rectifying this has been slow because demographic outsiders are expected to push their way into a center where no space has opened for them.

“One way that the HUB will address this disconnect is by funding the participation of students and faculty at minority-serving institutions,” said Stevens. An example she gave is Heritage University in Washington state, one of only two universities in the country that is both a Native-American-serving Non-Tribal Institution and Hispanic-Serving Institution.

“This will be a chance for our biomaterials field to learn new ways of thinking and welcome students from this exceptional University to the center of our field,” Stevens said.

The HUB center plans to open that space by fostering connections. Already, Eniola-Adefeso and Stevens run a Slack channel of more than 400 biomedical researchers. The channel supports discussions about project concepts.

In addition, the center will host in-person annual meetings to assess research directions, spark partnerships and distribute $5.7 million in seed grant money. Also envisioned are live sessions where outsiders to the field of biomaterials present on tools and approaches and pitch ideas.

The HUB center will also produce papers on research directions that the participants identify as likely to be fruitful.

Some of the nation’s most well-resourced research universities have committed to providing time at their facilities to HUB center participants. This is helpful for those from institutions initially organized around teaching, with less existing research infrastructure. Among such institutions are Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Eniola-Adefeso and Stevens are building on their experience distributing seed funds from a $500,000 grant from Genentech, which came in response to their 2021 call to action to correct the funding disparity faced by Black biomedical researchers. At the time, they had learned that Black biomedical researchers submit about five grant applications for every three that white researchers submit to get the same number of awards.

To partially address this, they distributed grants of $50,000 to 10 Black researchers whose applications for traditional Research Project Grants, known among scientists as R01s and worth roughly $500,000 each, had been rejected by the NIH.

“I’m happy to say, I believe 100% have subsequently got an R01 or something of that size,” said Eniola-Adefeso.

These successes underscore the case that Eniola-Adefeso, Stevens and their colleagues made in the #FundBlackScientists campaign: it’s not that the ideas aren’t good, it’s that the researchers aren’t playing on an even field. The new HUB center intends to continue democratizing participation and resource access.

The HUB center is a Biomaterials Network Technology Development Coordinating Center sponsored by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering.

Eniola-Adefeso is a University Diversity and Social Transformation Professor and a professor of macromolecular science and engineering and biomedical engineering at the University of Michigan. Stevens is an associate professor of bioengineering, a joint department of the University of Washington School of Medicine and the UW College of Engineering, and of laboratory medicine and pathology.

Written by Katherine McAlpine, University of Michigan.