Laura Suggs

Divya Ramamoorthy, Plan II biomedical engineering junior, conducts research to grow human tissue from stem cells. The goal of the research is to create fully working organs for transplant.

Photo Credit: Griffin Smith | Daily Texan Staff

Divya Ramamoorthy — a connoisseur of hot chocolates, a greeting card crafter and a UT research assistant — can be found daily with a petri dish full of stem cells in hand. For the past three years, the Plan II and biomedical engineering junior has worked toward creating a real, functioning human heart.

“The end goal is to find ways to regenerate tissue to be fully working organs,” Ramamoorthy said. “So imagine there are just beating cells, but, if we can make them into a 3-D construct, you can get rid of the need for organ transplant.” 

Ramamoorthy works on this stem cell project under the supervision of biomedical engineering associate professor Laura Suggs, and the graduate student who developed the project, Laura Geuss. Ramamoorthy is one of the youngest on the research team comprised of graduate students and has been featured on TedxYouth and Business Insider for her work.

Before she entered her freshman year, Ramamoorthy applied to be Suggs’ research assistant. She always planned to be a biomedical engineering major, but she did not know what she was truly interested in until she joined Suggs’ team. 

“I got lucky and got something that I really enjoyed,” Ramamoorthy said. “Suggs’ research is really cool because it works directly with human application. It’s like everything is living and everything is tangible, which I liked.”

The team’s work focuses on two different projects in regenerative medicine. For one project, they found a way to stimulate stem cells using magnets to create heart cells. They then search for ways to make these cells grow inside the human body. In the second project, they search for ways to actually keep the cells alive once they are implanted.   

“It’s a lot more of what the cells can do on their own, compared to what you can do in a lab.” Ramamoorthy said.

Geuss said Ramamoorthy is dedicated. 

“From the beginning I thought she was very motivated,” Geuss said. “Very quick to learn and very eager to learn, which made her easy to work with. Especially considering how young she was.”

In addition to her project with Suggs, Ramamoorthy recently began working with two aerospace engineering seniors on a theoretical design project derived from her research. They are researching the growth of heart cells in space to see if an actual, three-dimensional heart can be produced.

“A lot of research is being done using different scaffolds,” Ramamoorthy said. “Meaning you use different pieces of something that the cells grow through. The other option is potentially using nothing and just using zero gravity to allow the cells to grow in the way you want them to.” 

Despite her interest in the human body, Ramamoorthy said medical school is not in her future. She is also involved with the Senate of College Councils and Student Engineers Educating Kids, in which she and a few others conduct engineering projects with middle school students. She also mentors a sixth grader once a week as part of Plan II’s KIPP program.

“I faint at the sight of blood,” Ramamoorthy said. “I’d like to be a professor. I really like teaching little kids and I like research.”

Ramamoorthy said her passion for research comes from applying science and knowledge in a way that helps people. 

“A lot of research that you do is by yourself in the corner of a lab,” Ramamoorthy said. “You don’t get to see the end result. But with this, you realize that you’re working with actual things that came from a person and that you’re also going to put back into them, and I think that’s so cool.”

UT researchers across the state have been waiting for their grant money from the Cancer Research and Prevention Institute of Texas for months. At one point, UT-Austin researchers had $9 million in cancer research grants on hold.

Photo Credit: Guillermo Hernandez | Daily Texan Staff

UT faculty who have struggled to continue their cancer research projects because of an ongoing moratorium on the state’s cancer research institute may get their promised money in the next few weeks.  

Wayne Roberts, the interim executive director for the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, said there are talks about releasing the 118 cancer research grants totaling $110 million soon. Some say it is likely the grants will be released after Gov. Rick Perry signs a bill overhauling CPRIT, which is currently under criminal investigation. 

It is unclear whether the criminal investigation on the institute will continue. Perry cut funding on Friday for the Travis County Public Integrity Unit, which investigates corruption in state agencies. Travis County could vote to fund the institute, but officials have given no indication of doing so.

Perry froze the research grants after it was discovered the institute had awarded some grants without scientific review. The bill automatically became law on June 16 because Perry did not veto it.

UT researchers said not having their money has prevented them from hiring graduate student assistants and beginning certain aspects of their projects. Although UT has provided some money to keep research projects afloat, it has not been enough to continue with work as scheduled. 

The moratorium has affected UT researchers in Austin and across the state. At one point, $108 million in grants for UT researchers were on hold, including $9 million for UT-Austin.

On top of the frozen CPRIT grants, UT-Austin could lose up to $18 million research dollars this year under the across-the-board federal spending cuts known as the sequester.

This crunch on research dollars is raising red flags statewide and has many worried that decreased funding will discourage students and researchers from coming to Texas. 

Laura Suggs, an associate biomedical engineering professor at UT, was supposed to receive about $900,000 for a project aiming to prevent the spread of cancer using infrared light.

Without her CPRIT money, Suggs said the project has not been able to acquire the animals to conduct live testing and take her research to the next level.

“We have been able to do only benchtop work and not any of the proposed animal studies,” Suggs said. 

Suggs said UT has provided temporary funds to help the project, but it has not been enough to continue the project as scheduled. Suggs said she is liable for the money if her CPRIT grant does not come through.

CPRIT reform bill SB 149, by state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, aimed to reform the troubled cancer agency by clarifying rules on conflicts of interests, tightening the peer review process to increase scientific rigor, improving methods to monitor grantee expenditures and increasing transparency in the grant review process, among other reforms.

Texans voted to create CPRIT in 2007 and authorized it to award $3 billion for cancer research over the next 10 years.

Roberts said the institute is committed to meeting the criteria in the bill and working hard to improve operations and end the moratorium.

“We are currently developing rules and procedures necessary to implement SB 149,” Roberts said. “We will move carefully and deliberately in implementing these changes.” 

Greg Fenves, dean of the Cockrell School of Engineering, said the biomedical engineering department has not been able to recruit new researchers because of the moratorium.

Fenves said CPRIT funding has been invaluable in promoting cancer research in Texas and attracting talented faculty to UT. 

“It has funded truly innovative advances in cancer diagnosis and treatment,” Fenves said. “I hope the program continues with the needed changes to assure its integrity.”

James Tunnell, an associate biomedical engineering professor, has also been unable to recruit new researchers, which he says has delayed his project to develop a method for a noninvasive diagnosis of skin cancer. 

“If the funds come in, we won’t have appropriate overlap and training of the new researchers,” Tunnell said. “Knowledge will be lost, and it will take significantly more effort to get these projects up and running again.”