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Simplification, automation and miniaturization, say the researchers, will result in devices that cut costs by allowing expensive medical procedures to be moved away from specialized facilities requiring highly trained operators to doctors’ offices and eventually to home care.
Meanwhile, new materials will lend greater biocompatibility to artificial organs and synthetic tissue. Coupled with advances in bioelectronics and biophotonics, for example, a new generation of microchips could be developed that, when implanted in the brain or spinal column, will rewire nerve cells, rejoin synapses and reconnect nerve signals to muscles. Similarly, implanted microdevices will achieve “as-needed drug delivery” by, for example, triggering a surge of insulin when glucose levels rise.
|A circular genome map (top) shows genetic material shared between humans and other species. Glass bone developed by Lehigh researchers (right) is porous at both the nano and macro scales.|
Critical to all three of these areas, say the Lehigh-Mayo researchers, and critical to the overall drive to make medical care more affordable with technology, is systems engineering. “In the future healthcare system,” the researchers believe, “constant monitoring of patients will produce vast data sets for new clinical research studies. It will enable early identification of the onset of disease and greater quality and duration of life outside managed-care facilities.
“Many innovations will be required, such as novel, unobtrusive sensors; power-efficient, small-form-factor data-acquisition, storage, and analysis units; and power-efficient, high-reliability, high-availability, secure communications and networking solutions. This wealth of challenges opens exciting new opportunities for students in engineering and students in medicine.”
The new partnership thus has an important educational component: Mayo students seeking the Ph.D. or M.D. in biomedical engineering will study at Lehigh to master engineering fundamentals and quantitative systems skills, while students in Lehigh’s new bioengineering Ph.D. program will complete laboratory rotations or clinical internships at Mayo. These exchanges will give students an integrated biomedical and systems engineering perspective and enable them to develop the “essential technology framework for affordable medical care.”
The Lehigh-Mayo collaboration is a key element of the emerging Lehigh Biotech Cluster, a comprehensive initiative designed to support the efforts of biomedical researchers and leverage capabilities in advanced materials, optical technologies and systems engineering.
A logical merging of interests
The Mayo Clinic enjoys renown not only for the quality of medical care it delivers but also for its efforts to reduce the cost of its services. President Barack Obama has praised Mayo for offering “the best quality and lowest cost of just about any healthcare system in the country” and has urged other providers to “learn from what Mayo is doing.” Journalists and bloggers have joined the National Academy of Engineering in lauding Mayo’s commitments to “patient-first medicine” and “team medicine.”
|Latex particles (above) encapsulated with gold nanoparticles are being studied for their ability to perform diagnostic tests and to bind to and target cancer cells.|
Lehigh in recent years has forged research partnerships with hospitals, medical schools, and medical technology and drug companies. These include the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, the Lehigh Valley Hospital, Merck and Co. Inc., Olympus, B. Braun, and Becton, Dickinson and Co. (BD). In 2002, with support from NSF, Lehigh launched an undergraduate bioengineering program with concentrations in cell and tissue engineering, biopharmaceuticals, and bioelectronics/photonics.
In 2007, to coordinate research efforts in diagnostic and therapeutic technologies for affordable medicine, Lehigh’s board of trustees approved the Biotech Cluster. The endeavor is part of the university’s Healthcare Initiative, which is a centerpiece of Lehigh’s 10-year strategic plan. A specific plan has been developed to establish a state-of-the-art facility to house the Biotech Cluster and create space for Lehigh’s biomedical researchers and for collaborative projects with Mayo. The initiative also calls for a major expansion of the bioengineering faculty, the appointment of endowed chairs in health and the construction of user facilities devoted to cell-tissue cultures, imaging and characterization, device microfabrication, and genomics and proteomics.