Date of Birth: 20 May 1973
- St Joseph Muslim League
- Tunapuna Government Secondary School
- Hillview College, Tunapuna
- BSc Chemical Engineering, The University of the West Indies, St Augustine, Trinidad, 1996
- MPhil Chemical Engineering, The University of the West Indies, St Augustine, Trinidad, 2000
- PhD Biomedical Engineering, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, USA, 2004
- MBA Essentials & Entrepreneurship, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, Ross School of Business, USA, 2009
- The Emmanuel Ciprian Amoroso Award for Medical Sciences(Silver), NIHERST Awardsfor Excellence in Science and Technology, 2013
- Outstanding Research Award, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 2005
- Biomedical Engineering Society, USA
- American Society for Engineering Education, USA
- US Patent No 20040132184 for system and method for forming a cardiac muscle contract (co-inventor)
- US Patent No 20060141620 A1 for system and method for forming a cardiac tissue contract (co-inventor)
- US Patent No 20100196322 for polymer for tissue engineering applications and drop delivery (co-inventor)
- US Patent No 20140328806 for energetic three-dimensional artificial cardiac patch and uses thereof
- US Patent No 20150335417 for two stage cellularization strategy for bio-artificial hearts
- Over 50 peer-reviewed publications and one book
Associate Professor, Department of Biomedical Engineering, University of Houston, Houston, Texas, USA
T+T Icons In Science & Technology Volume 4
Dr. Ravi Birla is a faithful son of the soil. While his research at the University of Houston focuses on the human heart, Dr. Birla’s own heart is here in Trinidad and Tobago and he has much to say about how scientists can contribute to national development. Initially a chemical engineer, he pursued his BSc and MPhil at The University of the West Indies, St Augustine in Trinidad and then went on to read for his PhD in Biomedical Engineering in the USA. He has earned an impressive total of five patents for his biomedical inventions over the years. His research interests include heart muscle and blood vessel engineering and bio-artificial hearts (hearts which are partially or completely synthetic in nature). His research is focused on creating three dimensional (3D) cardiovascular constructs which includes bioengineering 3D cardiac patches, the use of stem cells to support the cardiovascular tissues construct and the development of cardiac pumps which are cell-based. His work is truly groundbreaking as he has produced a bioengineered beating heart muscle which can function in the same way that the muscle of a real heart does. This can assist scientists with the creation of replacement parts for human hearts which are damaged− imagine the number of lives which can be saved!
NIHERST interviews Ravi Birla
Q: Can you share some details about your childhood?
A: Both my parents are from India and I was born and raised in St Augustine, Trinidad. I was encouraged to excel in academics. We believe that if you are accomplished academically you would be successful in life.
I attended a Muslim school in St Augustine, despite being Hindu. Then, I attended Tunapuna Government Secondary School, after which I did A Levels at Hillview College.
Q: Where does India factor in your sense of self?
A: India is close to my heart, but I was born and raised in Trinidad and Tobago and it’s my home. As far as India goes, my parents and wife are from there. I love visiting India, but I am more of an outsider there. When I come to Trinidad, I am coming home! My loyalties have always been clear—Trinidad and Tobago first, then India.
Q: At what point in your life did you discover your interest in sciences?
A: As far as I could remember, I wanted to study sciences. I have a certain inquisitiveness about how the world works. I was always torn between two fields, computer science and chemical engineering. Computer science is more about physics and programming, while chemical engineering is more about chemistry and processes. I am more inclined to chemistry and processes, so chemical engineering was a natural fit.
Q: You earned the BSc and MPhil degrees in Chemical Engineering at UWI and then read for the Doctor of Philosophy in Biomedical Engineering at the University of Michigan. Having started in Chemical Engineering, what was the catalyst to enter biomedical engineering?
A: I am fascinated by nature processes. I came to realise that while chemical refineries are very good at processing, the human body is even more remarkable and efficient. I wanted to apply chemical engineering principles to solving medical problems. I took courses in biochemistry, and the more I learnt the more I wanted to work in the field.
Q: Can you give an example of how chemical engineering principles can apply in the human body?
A: The heart, which is my area of research, is the easiest example. The heart pumps blood through the circulatory system. It is electromechanical in its operation. It continuously expands and shrinks in response to electrical excitation. It endures mechanical stresses and it is prone to fluid stresses from the blood flow. Blood consists of particulate matter which is solid, and liquid which is the plasma. In chemical engineering terms, it’s a two-faced transport phenomenon. Fluid flow which is the flow of liquids in cylindrical tubes is understood in terms of pressure and volume changes. These are standard chemical engineering principles which can be used to understand the circulatory system.
Q: Can you tell us about your research?
A: I work on artificial tissue and organ development in the cardiovascular system. Our lab focuses on building the heart and parts of the heart—blood vessels, valves, and ventricles. When you think about artificial hearts, you think about mechanical pumps with titanium parts. These have already been used in patients with some success. However, titanium and cells don’t blend as well. This is where tissue and organ fabrication comes in. You want artificial tissue that will integrate well with your cells. We are also developing the core technologies for engineering artificial cardiovascular tissue. In order to engineer artificial tissue or organs, you need to recreate in the lab—in vitro—what happens in the body—in vivo. If you don’t have the right environment and the right signals going to the artificial heart, it is going to die. So, a large part of what we do is to design and develop bioreactors, which are custom-made devices that simulate what happens in the body.
Q: As a member of various research teams, you have been awarded five patents, can you tell us a bit about them?
A: Most of our patents are for tissue engineering models. The earliest patent was awarded for a method and system for producing self-organized heart muscle. That work describes a way for producing three-dimensional cardiac muscle in vitro.
Patent two dealt with the vascularization of 3D heart muscle and I was awarded patent three for the energetic three-dimensional artificial cardiac patch and uses thereof. The fourth patent was awarded for the use of fibrin gel for cardiac tissue engineering and the final one which I was awarded in 2015 was for the two stage cellularization strategy for bio-artificial hearts.
Our latest work is using adipose-derived stem cells to produce cardiac cells. Adipose is fat. We recently got some fascinating results, where we took adipose cell and were able to bioengineer something close to a heart muscle. This is the first conclusive evidence that fat cells can be bioengineered to form three-dimensional heart muscle.
Another area of research focuses the fabrication of bioartificial heart ventricles. There is a pediatric genetic condition called hypoplastic left heart syndrome, where babies are born with an underdeveloped left ventricle which cannot support the circulatory system. Within the first two years of life, the cardiac surgeon has to re-engineer the existing circulatory system so that the underdeveloped ventricle can take the load. I was hired 10 years ago at the University of Michigan to bioengineer a bio-artificial ventricle. We have finally created a successful experimental model of a ventricle. We are applying for patent protection. We are among the first to work in this area and to achieve this level of success.
Q: What work are you most proud of and why?
A: The publication of my book, Introduction to Tissue Engineering: Principles and Applications. Training the next generation of scientists is a very important aspect of what I do. The book is specifically designed to educate, motivate, and inspire new entrants in the field. I can only teach so many people, but if you have a book you have the opportunity to impact hundreds, if not thousands.
Q: Would you return to Trinidad and Tobago, if given the opportunity?
A: In a heartbeat! Trinidad and Tobago is home. I left because research opportunities were not available at that time. If there is investment in research infrastructure and resources, I will work to develop biomedical engineering in my country. My work would be much more rewarding. We could produce our own scientists, have a PhD programme, and have our own labs!
Q: What is needed to develop scientific research, more specifically biomedical research in TT?
A: Science and technology should be of national interest. It will advance society. The technologies that are developed will feed into our medical system. The Trinidad and Tobago biomedical engineering research capacity is under-developed. There is a small biomedical department at The University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT), but it focuses largely on teaching. The potential is there to convert that into a world-class department, but
it requires a sizable investment from the government and private enterprise. If Trinidad and Tobago wanted to get into the field of biomedical engineering, now would be the time. It is a new field of endeavour and is in a major growth phase. In the US there are about 100 departments of biomedical engineering.
Everything we are doing here, we can do in Trinidad and Tobago. It’s just a matter of having a vision and will to do it. So you guys can spread the word. Let me know when I should start packing my bags!