This article was originally featured in the BWH Bulletin.
Morteza Mahmoudi, PhD, vividly remembers the fear and heartache he felt as a child growing up in Iran during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. The armed conflict played out in the streets of his hometown of Tehran, where he says it wasn’t unusual to encounter a friend, neighbor or loved one suffering from traumatic injuries following a missile attack.
But just as clearly, Mahmoudi recalls what the voice inside him often said those days: Help people. Help heal their pain.
Now a biomedical investigator at the Center for Nanomedicine and the Department of Anesthesiology, Perioperative and Pain Medicine, Mahmoudi has spent the last three decades following that calling. It has propelled him to fulfill his life mission to ease suffering, no matter the obstacle.
“The war was a very hard period, but when I think about those days, I realize that kind of experience puts fuel in your motivational tank for the rest of your life,” he said. “From the time I entered university, I made the decision to use my past as a driving force for the future.”
As the winner of the seventh annual BRIght Futures Prize, Mahmoudi is especially hopeful about what tomorrow holds for patients around the world. The competition’s $100,000 award will support his project, “Time to Heal Chronic Wounds.”
Sponsored by the Brigham Research Institute, the BRIght Futures competition invites the Brigham community and the public to vote for one of three finalists whose innovative research is poised to transform medicine. This year’s competition garnered its largest-ever number of votes: 16,530. Mahmoudi was announced as this year’s winner during an awards ceremony at Discover Brigham on Nov. 7.
For the past 10 years, Mahmoudi has been working to develop a skin patch to heal chronic wounds that the body is unable to repair on its own, such as bedsores and diabetic wounds. There is no effective treatment for these types of wounds, which can easily become infected and sometimes lead to amputation or even death.
Mahmoudi’s patch is made from multifunctional nanofibers—fibers that are 1,000th the diameter of a single human hair—that mimic most of the skin’s characteristics. They are engineered to deliver a cocktail of healing biomolecules and immunotherapeutic nanoparticles to a wound site. These unique properties can help cells reach the site of a wound and create new blood vessels. Meanwhile, the nanoparticles detect and help fight infections while also lessening inflammation. The BRIght Futures Prize funding will help advance the project from the lab bench to clinical trials so that it can be rigorously tested in humans.
A Long Road
Once he got the idea for the patch, Mahmoudi soon realized how ambitious an endeavor creating it would be. It demanded expertise in four highly complex, distinct scientific fields: materials science and engineering, biomedical engineering, nanomedicine and cell biology. Undeterred, Mahmoudi earned a degree in each one (a bachelor’s, master’s, doctorate and post-doctorate, respectively).
“The time in which I was working on bachelor’s and master’s was extremely hard, as in addition to my university courses and research, I had to work over 70 hours per week as a high school teacher to support my family at the time,” Mahmoudi recalled. “The motivational fuel and my old friend—my internal monologue—gave me the stamina to make it through those days and continue my scientific activities while also taking care of my immediate family.”
He kicked off his research career at universities in Ireland, Switzerland and the U.S., advancing his understanding of science and medicine as he chipped away at the project’s protocols and prototypes.
“I was like a scientific nomad,” he said. “Ten years ago, the crosstalk between different experts was not great—not like today—so that’s why I had to train in different medical and engineering fields.”
Each part of the patch—its precise structure and physical, chemical and mechanical properties—took years to perfect.
“I would say that this was one of the hardest projects I’ve ever done because it took a lot of time, and I could have easily given up many times, but I kept going,” he said. “My long-term collaborators and I made a huge number of prototypes. We haven’t yet published anything on this topic, as I believe that the scientific community and patients would benefit from the A-to-Z story, rather than progressive reports. We needed to make sure our final prototype was error-free, and we are now at that stage.”
Being part of the Brigham’s highly collaborative clinical and research community has been a tremendous gift in advancing this work, Mahmoudi said.
Today, he is excited to see the project move one step closer to changing outcomes for patients with chronic wounds, thanks to the BRIght Futures Prize.
“If I can reduce the pain of one patient, even for one minute, I have done my share. But if these patches can help many lives, that would be my ultimate dream,” Mahmoudi said. “This prize opens the way to that.”