Engineering for Rapid Translation

Jeffrey Karp, Alumnus & Associate Professor, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School

Neonatal Adhesive Tape Demonstration (Video: Karp Lab)

“Evolution is the best problem solver,” argues Jeff Karp.

Karp, an IBBME alumnus (PhD 0T4), has an impressive list of affiliations by which to back up his claim: an associate professor at the Harvard Medical School, Karp is also at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Associate Faculty at MIT through the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology and principal faculty at the Harvard Stem Cell Initiative.

But as head of the Karp lab, he trains the next generation of researchers to design and implement sustainable biomedical engineering strategies with real commercial viability. The lab is highly collaborative, with researchers from many different research fields tackling problems from diverse perspectives.

“We get into this conventional troubleshooting process where we’re limited in what we consider to solve the problem. We need to step out of the lab. There are solutions all around us,” Karp says.

Taking inspiration and solutions from the environment, Karp, who places a great deal of emphasis on quality mentoring for his researchers, develops “biomimetic” techniques–solutions engineered by nature–that can be easily and rapidly translated to the clinic.

“We look for very simple solutions that can be easily scaled. If at all possible we use approaches that already exist in manufacturing, and that carry low regulatory risks.”

One of the Karp lab projects, funded by the Phillips Corporation through non-profit organization the Institute for Pediatric Innovation in Boston involves solving the biggest challenge faced by neonate units: skin adhesives. The skin of premature infants is extremely fragile as the epidermis is not yet mature. At the same time, devices need to be affixed to infants’ skin, and switching adhesives–a necessary and frequent process–often tears this tissue-like skin. Sometimes, Karp describes, even ears are accidentally ripped.

Inspired by geckos and spiders, the Karp lab developed a new adhesive design that added a third, middle layer to medical adhesive. This move changed the breakage point from an adhesive-skin interface to an adhesive backing interface.  Nurses can simply add baby power to the surface to detackify the surface. Amazingly, another adhesive can then be added that will bind with same strength.

Another of Karp’s projects involves the creation of a new cream to treat people suffering from allergic reactions to nickel–an allergy that affects 10% of the population.

Karp’s research team worked with nanoparticles of calcium carbonate and calcium phosphate–two agents already existent on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s “safe list.” The particles, about 70 nanometers in size, are large enough that they will not absorb into the skin when applied, and small enough to be very effective at bonding to nickel.

The resultant cream, which has successfully been tested in mouse models, nearly eliminates nickel exposure. And because the product includes materials deemed safe by regulatory agencies, Karp believes that this approach can be rapidly translated to the clinic.

Karp’s cell therapy projects have a wide range of applications for future biomedical products. He and his research team have been developing methods to control cells following transplantation. The method involves mimicking the homing response of white blood cells in such a way that stem cells can be directed to sites of inflammation, reducing the chances of rejection.

Ultimately, Karp claims his successes arise from “Lessons I’ve learned at IBBME.” Supervised by Professors Jed Davies and Molly Shoichet, Karp believe that his training at IBBME was “critical for developing a very strong foundation from where I could develop solutions to medical problems,” he argues. “I think in particular I had incredible mentors here who really helped me to learn how to focus on high impact reseach, translationally-relevant solutions, how to mentor others, and how to tell a compelling story.”

Giving back in kind is a foundational concern for Karp, and one that has seen results: to date 12 personnel trained in the Karplab have transitioned to faculty positions at institutions in US, Chile, Singapore, India, Ireland, and Korea.