From Superman to Super Research

Two women stand in a lab, looking down at equipment and smilingOf all people, Superman changed the course of Kacey Marra’s (A&S ’96G) professional life.

In 2002, the chemist was attending a tissue engineering conference in downtown Pittsburgh. One of the featured speakers was actor and disability advocate Christopher Reeve, who Marra recalls saying, “Whatever you’re doing, think about what you’re working on and how that can translate to spinal cord injury.”

The day after Reeve’s speech, Marra turned her attention to just that.

Today, she is a professor of plastic surgery in the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and bioengineering in Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering, as well as vice chair of research for the Department of Plastic Surgery. Her research focuses on a biodegradable tube that repairs severe peripheral nerve injuries, such as loss of feeling in limbs due to spinal cord injury like Reeve had. The tube releases a protein that repairs affected tissue in wounds while slowly disappearing to prevent infection or dislodging. Prior research in animals has demonstrated that the nerve guide device could restore up to 80% of nerve function.

The device could have applications for people injured in car accidents, machinery accidents, newborn nerve injuries incurred during delivery, nerve damage due to tumor removal and diabetic neuropathy. Soldiers, too, could benefit.

If it is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the project will then enter human clinical trials.

“Over half of our injured soldiers have a nerve injury. As a daughter of a Marine and a Vietnam vet who fought on the front lines, I found that highly motivational,” Marra said. “To turn my research efforts into something that can help our brave soldiers and veterans completely motivated me.”

Marra has been attending military medicine meetings and working with colleagues at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland. She has also met with soldiers affected by nerve injuries.

To help advance her research, Marra has been entering competitions and filed an invention disclosure with Pitt’s Innovation Institute for her research. In 2018, she created her own startup company, Nerve Repair Technologies. In June 2020, Marra received the People’s Choice award at Equalize2020, a competition for female academic entrepreneurs. Shortly after that, she was named a senior member of the National Academy of Inventors.

“I tell my students to try to find something in life that you’re going to be passionate about. That’s what got me to where I am today,” she said. “I knew I wanted to be a scientist since I was 10. I didn’t even realize I could do this kind of work for the military without enlisting.”