THE SERIALLY DISRUPTIVE DOCTOR
Rolling Stone named him one of the 100 people who will change America, but in a rare move they underplayed his contribution: Dr Alan Russell is likely to change the world.
His professional qualifications, titles and affiliations are incredibly impressive – a PhD in Biological Chemistry from London’s Imperial College, he is the Highmark Distinguished Career Professor at Carnegie Mellon and also holds positions in the Institute for Complex Engineered Systems and the Department of Bioengineering.
What the titles don’t tell you is that this is a man changing the fundamental way disease is treated, and working on a premise at once simple yet mindboggling: that under the right conditions, the human body can regenerate every single cell and therefore, heal itself of every disease. If that doesn’t seem impressive enough, think of it in more physical terms: if a lizard can grow its tail back, can a human being grow a limb?
Alan Russell says yes.
So, too, does the team of 250 researchers he led at Pittsburgh’s McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the largest multidisciplinary centre for regenerative medicine anywhere in the world.
Combining a host of disciplines such as biotechnology, stem cell research, chemistry and tissue engineering, Dr Russell is at the forefront of a paradigm shift in healthcare: not just treating the symptom, but actually curing the disease so the body can go back to a pre-disease state.
It sounds like the kind of stuff Hollywood makes films about, rather than something real doctors do, but before you dismiss it as medical techno-babble, take this: at least 5 people have already had the tips of their fingers – severed in accidents – slowly grow back.
Already, the implications – and applications – of his work are starting to make waves: he has served on the Defence Health Board and was the founding co-director of the Armed Forces Institute for Regenerative Medicine, using his research to explore how cell therapy can regenerate the skin of burned soldiers, among others.
The implications for healthcare, for ageing populations, for the pharmaceutical business, for mankind itself, are almost unprecedented: it has been likened to the kind of paradigm shift that physics saw from Newton to Einstein.
According to Dr Russell, though, the idea has actually existed for centuries. “Do you remember Prometheus in Greek mythology?,” he pointed out in an interview to vice.com. “As a punishment for offending the Gods, he was sentenced to have his liver eaten by an eagle every day, and his liver would regenerate each night so that the eagle could keep on eating it again the next day, for eternity. It’s interesting how the Greeks chose the liver, since it’s one of the most regenerative organs, though not as much as blood – that regenerates itself at an impressive rate. The idea that the body is capable of regenerating itself has been dreamed for centuries, but it’s only during the last 10 or 15 years that we can realise what we’ve always dreamed of.”
Given the overwhelming proportion of ageing populations in the developed world – it’s no coincidence that Japan and the US, whose demographics veer sharply towards the old – have invested heavily in the research. China stepped in recently with an investment of USD 250 million in the field.
His tremendous influence in the medical field – last year he served as Chair of the College of Fellows for the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (an elected body consisting of the top 2% of medical and bioengineers in the US) – as well as his position on the Science Board of the Food and Drug Administration mean that the field of regenerative medicine is front and centre among the medical community.
Within the scientific community, he has participated on 24 advisory boards and has received some of the most prestigious awards in the field for his contribution to research, teaching and public service. These include three Carnegie Science Center Awards for Excellence, sixteen consecutive appearances in Who’s Who in Science and Engineering, the Gilbreth lectureship from the National Academy of Engineering, and the Cockroft Rutherford lectureship from the University of Manchester, the Outstanding Alumnus Award from the University of Manchester, the American Chemical Society’s prestigious Pittsburgh Award and the TERMIS Lifetime Achievement Award – 2012.
He’s a celebrated speaker at some of the world’s most elite forums; has published over 150 articles in refereed journals, one book, and 10 book chapters and holds 14 patents, with over 25 additional pending patents.
Perhaps most fittingly, he is also Editor-in-Chief of Disruptive Science and Technology.
We can’t imagine anyone better suited to the task.