A first-of-its kind biomedical facility in the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences will allow researchers from across the university to study cures and treatments for diseases, including Alzheimer’s, HIV, diabetes, Hepatitis C, and more.

The facility was built with $487,086 from the National Institutes of Health, which has never funded building renovations at Virginia Tech with this type of a grant, said Kiho Lee, an assistant professor of animal and poultry sciences.

The new building will allow Lee and his fellow collaborators to use pigs as a research model, which produces far more successful clinical trial outcomes than ones with rodent-based trials because pigs have many more characteristics that closely mimic human physiology.  

“This is an opportunity to participate in translational research that has enormous potential to benefit humans who are facing any number of debilitating and fatal diseases,” Lee said. “We look forward to working with scientists from around Virginia Tech — and indeed the world — to solve some of these medical challenges.”

Lee has a number of studies he wants to get off the ground at the new facilities, which have such modern features as automated temperature control, monitoring cameras, around-the-clock monitoring, enhanced security system, and other additions that will help ensure animal welfare.

Using pig models, specifically immunodeficient pigs, Lee has submitted a grant to examine ways to grow patient-specific human liver cells called hepatocytes in pigs that can then be transplanted back into patients without immune rejection. This novel approach may overcome organ donor shortage for liver transplantation.  

Another research project he is planning involves stem cell transplantation therapy to help patients suffering from degenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and others.  

In this process, cells are first taken from a patient to generate patient-specific stem cells. Then, tissue-specific differentiation of stem cells into neural stem cells will be performed utilizing immunodeficient pigs. Transferring these cells back to the patient can potentially slow the death of neurons and halt the progression of the disease.

A way to target diabetes using these pigs is also being examined by growing healthy human pancreatic cells in the pig and transferring them to a human. The new, healthy pancreatic beta cells would produce insulin, eliminating the need for daily insulin shots some diabetic patients currently must take.

These studies provide novel methods to cure many diseases and the ability to monitor in vivo differentiation pathway of human stem cells.

“There is no limit to the research projects we can do to that will help tackle many of the medical challenges facing us today,” Lee said.

Other projects include testing safety of infant formula, examining pathogenesis of the norovirus, studying hepatitis C, and improving meat quality for human consumption.

The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Department of Animal and Poultry Sciences also helped fund the facility. Others on the grant included X.J. Meng, a university distinguished professor; Lijuan Yuan an associate professor; and Sherrie Clark-Deener, associate professor, all in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. Others included in the grant are Patrick Hilt, director of facilities in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the university’s veterinarian. From the Department of Animal and Poultry Sciences, Department Head David Gerrard and Associate Professor Robert Rhoads, Associate Professor Michelle S. Rhoads, and Assistant Professor Samer El-Kadi were also part of the grant.