The Biomedical Engineering department formally became a joint department of the U-M College of Engineering and the Medical School in 2012, just five years before celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2017. But the spirit and impact of the collaboration that spurred its founding five decades ago continue at an ever-increasing pace today.
At the heart of the Department’s many collaborative efforts lie clinicians’ desire to offer new and better solutions to their patients and engineers’ passion for applying their knowledge to solve important health and medical problems.
Take Jacqueline Jeruss, MD, PhD, a surgical oncologist who treats benign and malignant breast disease. An investigator focused on breast cancer biology, she’s also an associate professor of BME. “Once a patient becomes metastatic, that’s when what I as a surgeon can offer to patients falls into the background.”
That disheartening situation led Jeruss to ask, “If I can’t help these patients anymore through my surgical practice, what can I do in the lab?”
The answer: Quite a lot. Jeruss works with William and Valerie Hall Chair and Professor Lonnie Shea (the two also are married) to better understand the cellular changes that lead to metastasis and to devise new methods for detection.
Drs. Jeruss, Shea, and other collaborators have been working to engineer pre-malignant niche sites – areas in other parts of the body that are “primed” to shelter and nurture metastatic cancer cells. Engineered niches offer opportunities to observe how and where cancer cells travel, paving the way for new detection systems and therapies to thwart the process.
What enables such collaboration? “The real opportunity here is having a top-10 engineering school and a top-10 medical school co-located,” Shea says.
“Michigan is very unique in that it’s an incredibly collaborative environment, not just within a department or division but across the schools and colleges,” adds Dr. William Roberts. “It’s very simple and easy to pick up the phone and call someone in BME, talk about a problem and start to develop a research relationship.”
“It’s very simple and easy to pick up the phone and call someone in BME, talk about a problem and start to develop a research relationship.”William Roberts M.D.
Foundation of collaboration
The seeds of collaboration between what is today the BME department and the U-M Medical School were sowed in the 1960s. At the time, faculty from both schools were already working together on joint projects such as nuclear imaging, prosthetics, and signal processing in neurons.
Other early research included electrophysiological studies by Daniel Green that informed our understanding of how humans see in changing light. The work of Clyde Owings, who held appointments in both Pediatrics and BME, led to specialized medical care of abused children, including through the Child Abuse and Neglect Clinical and Teaching Services program he established.
A testament to the many joint projects between the Bioengineering Program and the Medical School, during a difficult time for the Program in the late 1970s, two Bioengineering faculty with Medical School appointments launched a letter-writing campaign. More than 20 distinguished faculty from nearly a dozen medical specialties responded by sharing their strong support.
Among the many fruitful research efforts of that era were development of the “spherocentric knee,” an early ball-in-socket, rather than hinge, design that more closely imitated typical human knee motion by David Sonstegard, Herbert Kaufer, and Larry Matthews. Groundbreaking work by Dr. Robert Bartlett on a new system – extracorporeal membrane oxygenation – provided life support to infants and children with acute respiratory failure. The now famous “Michigan probe,” a multi-channel neural probe still widely used in brain research, was developed by Kensall Wise and David Anderson.
Further cementing collaboration in the early 1990s, then Bioengineering Program Director Charles Cain encouraged faculty from the College and the Medical School to propose joint research to the Whitaker Foundation. Their efforts resulted in a Special Opportunity Award in 1994.
Building on its success, two years later the newly formed BME department – thanks in no small part to Cain’s continued efforts – won a $3 million Whitaker Foundation Development Award to support its growth and continued collaborative work.
Research at the time included co-development of gene-activated matrix technology for wound repair by Steven Goldstein and Jeffrey Bonadio and in situ tissue engineering, which has become an important research technology. Work by Lawrence Schneider on the biomechanics of automotive injuries has led to improved crash-test dummy design and vehicle occupant safety, and advances in ultrasound and multimodal imaging by Paul Carson have led to improved imaging safety and effectiveness.
Creating a sustainable and translational model
With the aim of advancing promising joint engineering and medical research projects from the laboratory to market to clinical settings, in 2005, the Department won a $5 million Wallace H. Coulter Foundation Translational Research Partnership Award, one of only nine universities in the country to do so.
Matthew O’Donnell, BME chair from 1999 to 2006, was thrilled about the award. As he said in the Department’s history, Biomedical Engineering at Michigan: A Product of Vision and Persistence, “…how wonderful, especially for our junior faculty, to be exposed to a world where you don’t just write papers, you put out a device or process or new molecule that people will actually use in the clinic.” The program provided funding for four collaborative clinician-engineer teams in its first year alone.
Five years later, given its strong track record, U-M received an endowment through the U-M Coulter Partnership for Translational Biomedical Engineering Research. This time, U-M was one of only six universities nationwide to receive the $10 million endowment, with an additional $10 million in matching funds from the College of Engineering and the Medical School.
Coulter projects have led to impressive results, including 14 start-up companies that will no doubt have a positive impact on patients. For example, Charles Cain, J. Brian Fowlkes, Timothy Hall, William Roberts, and Zhen Xu have been developing a non-invasive ultrasonic technique to treat severe congenital heart disease in newborns as well as many other conditions.
“It was an organic thing that evolved,” said Cain, founding BME chair, of his and other long-standing collaborations. “There were [clinical] problems that needed a solution.”
Ever-increasing breadth, depth and impact
Since the early 2000s, collaborative research has expanded continuously. Other game-changing work over the past two decades includes:
- Intravascular diagnostic ultrasound techniques to detect lipid pools within atherosclerotic plaque by Matthew O’Donnell.
- Improved functional MRI techniques for brain imaging to improve speed and reduce distortion by Douglas Noll.
- Advances in image reconstruction for multiple imaging modalities and a low-dose CT scan method that reduces radiation exposure by Jeffrey Fessler.
- Mechanistic studies to improve ultrasound diagnostics and therapies, including drug and gene delivery by Cheri Deng.
- Development of optical molecular imaging and diagnostics, including a new optical spectroscopy method to diagnose pancreatic cancer by Mary-Ann Mycek.
- Creation of a “5-D protein fingerprint” by David Sept and Michael Mayer to provide insights into neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
- Development of modular micro-tissues and biomaterials that direct cell phenotype in order to regenerate bone, cartilage, and blood vessels by Jan Stegemann.
Education to support collaboration and innovation
Enhancements to the BME curriculum over the years are ensuring students receive the training to follow in the footsteps of so many interdisciplinary engineering and medical researchers. Several design courses round out the common BME core. These include Biomedical Instrumentation & Design (BME 458), in which students design an instrument to take electrophysiological measurements, Biotechnology and Human Values (ENG 100), in which students design a new diagnostic test, and the senior capstone design course, BME 450, in which students design and test a prototype for actual stakeholders.
Broadening “bench to beside” translation, the design curriculum has been further bolstered with a year-long graduate course, BME 599, created by Aileen Huang-Saad to expose students to the full innovation process, including commercialization. Rachael Schmedlen introduced a year-long senior capstone design course (BME 451/452) and a clinical-needs-finding course (BME 499). Andrew Putnam created a new course in computer modeling in design (BME 350).
The Department also launched a new medical product development master’s concentration in 2015. Headed by Jan Stegemann, the program was designed to teach students how not only to design a medical device but to address the many regulatory, intellectual property and reimbursement-related factors involved in successfully bringing new products to a competitive market.
In addition, 2015 brought new clinical immersion and experiential learning opportunities to students through greater support for device prototyping, a collaboration with the Medical School’s Clinical Simulation Center, a Clinical Peer Mentors program and the Medical Device Sandbox. All offer the chance for BMEs and medical students and clinicians to work together – ultimately toward improved patient care and safety.
A novel “instructional incubator” course, launched by Huang-Saad in 2016 continues to build on the collaborative nature of biomedical engineering practice by having students themselves create several new short courses. Courses piloted in 2017 included 3D printing and prototype development, biological signaling in neural tissue, and computational modeling for drug development (See the related story: BME-in-Practice: Iterative curriculum design).
Poised for a new era
With 12 new faculty hires in the past three years, BME is well positioned to address both intractable and new health and medical challenges with a next-generation arsenal that includes precision health (molecular imaging and diagnostics, gene and drug delivery, and histotripsy), data analytics (systems biology and multiscale modeling) and regenerative medicine (brain-machine interfaces, immune therapeutics, cell transplantation).
In this last area, BME’s David Kohn is co-leading U-M’s Regenerative Medicine Collaborative, comprised of more than 150 faculty across campus. The groundswell recalls BME’s earliest days, when the department was a burgeoning program, its growth and stature fueled by a vision that blurred disciplinary boundaries. The momentum continues, offering clinicians, engineers, and students alike the opportunity to improve lives.
Dr. Parag Patil is a neurosurgeon who works closely with BME’s Cindy Chestek on brain-machine interfaces and welcomes those opportunities. “Engineering helps because when I’m doing my clinical work, I’m always thinking about ways to make things better,” he says.
Zhen Xu, too, is excited by the prospect of opportunity and change. “I hope one day we can tell patients that we can actually remove your blood clots or remove your tumor noninvasively,” she says.
And Dr. Jeruss describes the “renewed sense of optimism about what I can offer to patients. One of the most wonderful things that’s come out of this whole process for me is a new perspective on what’s possible for us to do in our lifetime.”
“One of the most wonderful things that’s come out of this whole process for me is a new perspective on what’s possible for us to do in our lifetime.”Jacqueline Jeruss, M.D., Ph.D.