Conference Examines Promise of Medical-Engineering Partnerships that Improve Health Care
Convinced she can make a difference in the lives of the sick — including her own father, who suffers from a rare heart condition — Alyssa Basdavanos plans to become a physician to pursue cures and new treatments for a host of debilitating illnesses.
But even at her tender age, the University of Miami neuroscience major knows that doctors alone can’t remedy all ailments. Engineers also must play a critical role in that endeavor, partnering with health care providers to create revolutionary medical devices and develop new ways to conduct research.
The promise of what can be accomplished through such collaborations is what drew Basdavanos to a half-day symposium on the University of Miami’s Coral Gables campus on February 26 that explored the application of engineering to the medical field.
“The U.S. health care system needs to become more efficient and more effective,” James M. Tien, Ph.D., dean emeritus of UM’s College of Engineering, said in welcoming more than 150 attendees to the symposium, “Engineering and Medicine: A Critical Partnership in Technobiology,” the first-ever regional joint meeting of the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Medicine.
“Just as engineering has made the manufacturing of goods and the delivery of services more productive, it must now focus its talents on health care,” said Tien. “Indeed, the time is ripe for more technobiology breakthroughs.”
During the four-hour conference, attendees learned about many of those breakthroughs from a stellar group of three engineers who Daniel Berg, Distinguished Research Professor of Industrial Engineering at UM, lauded for creating fundamental knowledge in areas of societal need.
An engineer, entrepreneur and serial inventor, Leonard Pinchuk, Ph.D. ’84, president and CEO of the medical device company Innovia LLC and an alumnus of UM’s College of Engineering, detailed how his company developed both the first commercially successful angioplasty balloon and the helical wire-based stent used on most stent grafts. His team also developed the first implantable elastomer, a polymer known as SIBS, and in collaboration with scientists at the Miller School of Medicine’s Bascom Palmer Eye Institute, integrated that technology into ophthalmology with a device that bypasses obstructions in the eye’s drainage pathways to treat glaucoma.
Matthew Tirrell, Ph.D., the founding Pritzker Director of the University of Chicago Institute of Molecular Engineering, discussed his work in versatile, modular nanoparticles that patrol for diseases without tell-tale symptoms.
And Ashutosh Agarwal, Ph.D., an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at UM, presented his organ-on-a-chip research that involves simulating the function of organs such as the heart and the pancreas on a chip about the size of a USB stick, allowing his team to conduct risk-free biomedical testing.
“The process of drug discovery is broken,” said Agarwal, noting that it can take as much as $1 billion to bring a new drug to market. Organ-on-a-chip research “yields results in a time-efficient and cost-efficient method. It’s the future for drug delivery,” he said.
Agarwal also conducts research on cancer metastasis, using a special polymer that allows for drug testing without performing a biopsy. And he is collaborating with UM neurologists investigating possible treatments for a neuromuscular junction disorder.
UM Executive Vice President and Provost Jeffrey Duerk said such integration of technology and medicine “offers all of us a great opportunity to imagine what will come next.”
“Many times technology has been implicated for the rising costs of health care,” explained Duerk, an accomplished engineer, scientist, inventor and leading expert in biomedical imaging. “I think what many of us recognize is we have great opportunities to not only demonstrate how, in fact, the integration of technology and biology actually brings costs down, but also paves the way fundamentally for important advances for the patient.”
The partnership of medicine and engineering isn’t new, pointed out C. Daniel Mote Jr., Ph.D., president of the National Academy of Engineering.
“But suddenly it’s turned a corner where now engineering and medicine realize that their futures independently depend on their partnership together,” he said. “From this point on, you can expect to see this around the country and around the world.”
Edward Abraham, M.D., executive vice president for health affairs, CEO of UHealth and dean of theMiller School, noted two UM examples of the integration of medicine and engineering: the Biomedical Nanotechnology Institute at the University of Miami (BioNIUM), which was founded in 2012 with a $7.5 million gift from the Dr. John T. Macdonald Foundation, includes faculty from medicine, engineering and science, and involves the establishment of a unique nanofabrication facility; and the Center for Computational Science, through which researchers from multiple disciplines undertake projects in areas that range from computational biology and bioinformatics to drug discovery and software engineering.
“It’s incredibly important for us to have these synergistic relationships in team science, reaching across this great University,” said Abraham. “Taking advantage of the intellectual assets that we have is a major priority for us going forward.”
UM President Julio Frenk, a physician who served as Mexico’s minister of health under former President Vicente Fox, called for the creation of institutional structures within universities to support their “incredibly talented researchers.” Institutions of higher learning, he said, should not only create knowledge but also transfer that knowledge to technology and maintain an open interface with those who can take creation to the next step.
College of Engineering Dean Jean-Pierre Bardet, Ph.D., called the symposium timely, noting it took place at a time when UM is investing heavily in STEM with its Frost Institutes for Science and Engineering. He also highlighted UM’s new College of Engineering-Johnson & Johnson 3D Printing Center of Excellence Collaborative Laboratory.
“The idea is to go from MRIs to the manufacturing of body parts,” he said.
Jane Henney, M.D., home secretary of the National Academy of Medicine’s Institute of Medicine, said she was especially pleased to see students in attendance at the symposium, describing them as “our future in terms of discoveries yet to come that will truly change our world.”
Basdavanos, the senior neuroscience major who conducted research at the University of Hawaii Cancer Center, said she attended the event “to keep the conversation and ideas of collaboration going.”
“I have many friends who are graduate students,” she said. “One is doing his Ph.D. in stem cell research. He talks my ear off about what he’s doing, with the understanding that I’m never going to completely understand his work unless I’m in his shoes. So I try to connect the dots, knowing that a lot of what I learn will go a long way in what’s developed in the future.”
— Robert C. Jones Jr. reported this story.