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Engineering the Future of Health Care

Dr. Georgiou presents at the NAE Regional Meeting

Dr. George Georgiou, professor of biomedical and chemical engineering and the Cockrell Family Regents Chair in Engineering No. 9, presents "Molecular Analysis of Patients' Immune Responses: the Next Revolution in Disease Diagnosis and Therapy" during the NAE Regional Meeting April 7.

Imagine a lab with dirt floors, no running water and zero electricity; a lab that uses light from the window to operate the single microscope perched on a makeshift table. These are conditions students often encounter when studying in underdeveloped, third world countries. Luckily, these students — empowered by faculty and hands-on research — are bringing new technologies to rural labs in anticipation of advancing the future of global health care.

It is advancements like these that were the topic of the most recent National Academy of Engineering (NAE) Regional Meeting hosted April 7 by the Cockrell School of Engineering and the Department of Biomedical Engineering. The theme of the meeting was "Engineering the Future of Health Care," and featured experts from across the U.S. sharing the latest developments in health care technology, including ones that will have major global impacts.

"We have a responsibility as educators to make the whole world visible to our students," said Dr. Rebecca Richards-Kortum, a NAE member and the Stanley C. Moore Professor in the bioengineering department at Rice University. "We need a new generation [of engineers] who will fight for the next generation of global health care."

Richards-Kortum's research focuses on high-resolution, in vivo, optical imaging for enhanced detection of cancer using scalable and "shockingly simple" technologies – such as the iPhone4. Her students have developed microscopes that capture specimens using the camera on the iPhone4. Students can then take the image and examine it more thoroughly to detect cancerous and precancerous cells.

"When students put their own ideas into practice, they really become the future leaders," she said. "You don't learn how to swim in the library. You learn to swim in the river. The same goes for engineering."

By creating high performance, low-cost solutions, Richards-Kortum's students have been able to reduce the cost of imaging devices exponentially — from hundreds of thousands of dollars, to just a few thousand dollars.

"Innovation does not mean complexity," said Dr. George Georgiou, professor of biomedical and chemical engineering at the Cockrell School, who presented a talk during the meeting titled "Molecular Analysis of Patients' Immune Responses: the Next Revolution in Disease Diagnosis and Therapy."

Georgiou, a NAE member and the Cockrell Family Regents Chair in Engineering No. 9, has developed several protein-based therapies for diseases, including co-developing the leading approach under consideration for treatment of inhaled anthrax.

Another area of research Georgiou studies is DNA sequencing. In his talk, he discussed "next-next generation DNA sequencing" and how significantly reduced costs in this area have allowed researchers to understand biological diversity, human genetics, cancers and DNA mutations at an increased rate.

"In 2005, it cost nearly $3 million for people to sequence their DNA, now it costs $3,000," he said, adding the next step would be to reduce costs to the hundreds by using silicon fabrication methodologies.

Enabling people to sequence DNA at such a reduced cost would allow them to determine their susceptibility to disease, as well as improve the understanding of human biology, which would help researchers develop new drugs and technologies to aid in disease diagnosis and therapy, Georgiou said.

"We need more people who understand biology … Engineers have to become more proficient in this," he said. "There are too many MBAs in this world."

Dr. Charles Vest, president of NAE and president emeritus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), echoed Georgiou’s sentiment during his remarks at the meeting.

"None of the great challenges we face are going to get solved without engineers," Vest said. "Engineering is at the core of all of these things. NAE has a deep commitment to help the public understand why engineering is so critical to our future."

The meeting continued with presentations by Dr. Robert Langer, David H. Koch Institute Professor at MIT and a member of NAS, IOM and NAE. His talk was titled "Engineering and Health Care: From the Discovery of the First Angiogenesis Inhibitors to the Development of Controlled Drug Delivery Systems and the Foundation of Tissue Engineering."

Langer has written more than 1,100 articles and has approximately 760 issued and pending patents worldwide that have been licensed or sublicensed to more than 220 pharmaceutical, chemical, biotechnology and medical device companies.

Dr. Mark E. Davis, the Warren and Katharine Schlinger Professor of Chemical Engineering at the California Institute of Technology and member of NAS and NAE, followed Langer with a presentation titled "Engineering Nanoparticle Medicines for the Treatment of Cancer." Davis is an expert in new materials for drug and nucleic acid delivery.

To close the meeting, Dr. Joseph C. Salamone, NAE member and chief scientific officer of Rochal Industries LLP, a privately owned research company focused on the development of new polymeric materials for wound and burn care treatment, delivered a talk titled "Bioengineering Health Care Advances in Ophthalmology and Wound Care." Salamone holds more than 190 U.S. patents or patent applications in the field of eye care and wound care.



George Georgiou holds the Cockrell Family Regents Chair in Engineering No. 9.