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Bioengineering grad hits the ground running

Michael Maloney always knew that biology would play a role in his career, but when it came time to go to college, he worried that a straight degree in biology wouldn’t translate into the practical applications he wanted from his educational investment.

“I heard from my mentor about a new program at the University of Missouri in biological engineering that sounded really great. They were still figuring out the coursework when I enrolled in the first class,” said Maloney, who thrived in the program. He was named outstanding junior, and as the new discipline was expanding around him, he was able to work briefly with the chemical engineering department on a research project and assist Kevin Gillis, an associate professor in the biological engineering department, to display his research.

In 2002, Maloney was one of eight people in MU’s first biological engineering graduating class and was immediately hired by Reliable Biopharmaceuticals in St. Louis, where he worked in a lab extracting proteins. And in his spare time, he had plenty of fun with his six siblings who have all remained or relocated back to their hometown.

The following year, Maloney took a position with Isto Technologies, a young St. Louis-based company incorporated in 1997. The biotech firm works with cell-based therapy to heal bone and cartilage, primarily in relation to sports injuries.

“Our first focus was on the damage to knee cartilage, which happens frequently with impact injuries. They may start small, but they grow, and are often extremely painful,” said Maloney.

He explained that the adult body loses its ability to regenerate cartilage but through a proprietary process, researchers at Isto Technologies have devised a method to liberate cells from juvenile donor cells that will grow new tissue in a laboratory setting.

“We allow the cells to do what they would normally do—grow neo-cartilage, which looks a little like a contact lens,” the young bioengineer said. “We then use it to make implants which will integrate with the patient’s tissue, inspiring his or her cartilage to heal itself.”

The lab is presently working with the FDA to have the process approved. They have completed the surgeries for the first two phases involved in evaluating the safety of the procedure. “We are nearing patient enrollment for phase three, an efficacy study that includes human clinical trials,” said Maloney. “All of our patients are doing really well, but it’s a long process.”

Isto Technologies next plans to tackle degenerated spinal discs with a cellular treatment. “I’ve been working with a lot of consultants and neurosurgeons, and doing some travel, moving up into project management,” said Maloney.

“It’s been exciting working at a small company with these novel technologies. I really want to keep pursuing these products and see them through. MU gave me the tools— science, biology, and problem-solving skills—and this job is right up my alley. It’s tailor-fit.”

What is your fondest memory of your days as a student in Mizzou Engineering?

My fondest memories are found in that exceptional week every March when we celebrated St. Pat, the patron saint of engineering. Being of Irish decent myself, I have a special place in my heart for that time of year. I’ll always remember Jesse Hall lit with green and seeing eggs catapulted through the air.

Who was your favorite professor and why?

Dr. Neil Meador was an inspiration and a mentor. I was a high school senior contemplating a degree in biology when I first met Dr. Meador. He suggested that I consider the newly offered biological engineering degree program at MU. I had an innate interest in biology, and math had always made sense to me. It was a perfect fit. The degree sharpened my skills and provided me valuable problem solving tools that have enabled me to make a career out of what I enjoy doing.

What do you consider the greatest achievement of your career so far?

Being a part of a team that is working at the forefront of tissue engineering has granted me numerous achievements as we make novel discoveries and venture down never-before-traveled paths. The things that I am most proud of are still tightly guarded secrets, but I take pride in the fact that one day the things that we are working on will improve the quality of life for people around the world.

What do you do for fun when you’re not working?

My most enjoyable hobby is leading seminars on the history and characteristics of Irish beers and whiskies. I try to make it a pleasant educational experience for my audiences. Providing samples of the featured products definitely helps. In all seriousness, speaking in front of groups, regardless of the topic, is a welcome contrast to the hours I log in the lab and office.

As someone on a path to a distinguished career in engineering, what is your best piece of advice for engineering students?

Accumulate a wide variety of experiences. Consider interdisciplinary classes and research opportunities. A biological engineering student could challenge himself or herself with undergraduate research programs in chemical engineering or at the medical school. Stepping outside of what is familiar helps develop the ability to communicate intelligently with the surgeons, lawyers, and businessmen you may interact with as part of your job. A skilled engineer with good communications skills is an invaluable asset.