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Body mechanics

Biomedical invention thrives at the University’s Institute for Engineering in Medicine, where scientists are finding better ways to tune up the ultimate machine

A constant hum fills the air at the University of Minnesota’s Medical Devices Center. It’s not the whir of high-tech equipment, but the talk of the three engineers and one medical student taking part in the 2008-09 Medical Devices Fellows Program, and the energy they’re generating makes it clear why the University is gaining renown as a fertile ground for collaborations between physicians and engineers.

In the early weeks of their program—one of many under the umbrella of the University’s Institute for Engineering in Medicine—fellows Benjamin Arcand, Ph.D., Joseph Hale, Ph.D., Nikhil Murdeshwar, Ph.D., and Bryan Rolfes bulldozed through a crash course on intellectual property, entrepreneurship, creativity, fundraising, and coaching in business networking. Affectionately called Boot Camp, it was a nonstop parade of lectures, demonstrations, tours, trips to the operating room, and discussions.

Next, they began documenting hundreds of medical needs that new medical devices and technology might satisfy. And finally, by the end of the academic year, the fellows will have identified about 20 needs with the most attainable and commercially attractive solutions, created prototypes of the devices that would meet those needs, and applied for provisional patents.

They accomplish most of this work in the Medical Devices Center, which houses laboratories for mechanical prototyping, computer-aided design and precision instruments, electronics fabrication, assembly and molding, and SimPortal technology that allows direct three-dimensional viewing and voice communication with surgical suites during medical procedures. One of the center’s goals, according to its director, Art Erdman, Ph.D., is to make it easier for engineers and physicians to collaborate in creating innovative medical solutions.

“I’ve been impressed by the interest in this program from the medical device industry and the University,” says Bryan Rolfes, the medical student among the fellows, who previously worked for a product innovation firm and has been building and fixing things since his childhood on a Nebraska farm. “The human body is the ultimate machine,” he says. “There’s still a lot of mystery in the mechanics of the body, and it is fascinating to try to go where nobody’s ever gone before.”

Jeffrey McCullough, M.D., director of the Institute for Engineering in Medicine, is bringing together engineers and physicians to solve complex medical problems.

Interdisciplinary research

That thrill of discovery, accompanied by medical and engineering rigor and a disciplined approach to commercial possibilities, infuses the collaborations that thrive in the Institute for Engineering in Medicine (IEM). Established in the summer of 2007 on the foundations of the Medical School’s former Biomedical Engineering Institute, the IEM is jointly sponsored by the Medical School and the Institute of Technology. Its 118 faculty members represent more than 30 academic disciplines.

“We’re capitalizing on the synergies and applications of engineering to medical problems to help patients,” says IEM director Jeffrey McCullough, M.D. “You need this institute to have feet in both engineering and medicine. At the University, the Institute of Technology and the Medical School are right across Washington Avenue from each other. We can bring together engineers and physicians, and we have the local industry to tap as our research gets to the point of commercialization.”

The IEM’s mission focuses on interdisciplinary research that applies engineering to medical problems and the improvement of medical care. Bolstered by donations from individuals and corporations, it supports centers devoted to the study of medical devices and cardiovascular repair, and it funds a wide variety of research that crosses traditional academic boundaries.

“Minnesota is uniquely positioned, with major strengths in biomedical engineering research and development,” says John Bischof, Ph.D., the IEM’s associate director of research. “We have talent, resources, and a unique environment that includes not only strong schools of engineering and medicine and an academic health center, but also local industry unmatched in the medical device area.”

In fact, medical technology businesses play a big part in advancing the IEM. Businesspeople lead workshops and events, mentor students who make up the next generation of device engineers and inventor-clinicians, and ultimately hire them. Much of the equipment in the Medical Devices Center arrives through corporate donations.

In turn, the IEM participates in educational opportunities offered by the Department of Integrative Biology and Physiology aimed at people working in the medical device industry, including a cardiac physiology and anatomy class and a cadaver lab available for dissections. Because many engineers in the medical industry have never thoroughly studied anatomy—much less worked with cadavers—these courses allow them to pick up crucial knowledge as they gain an understanding of the University and its strengths in engineering and medicine.

Medical devices fellow Benjamin Arcand, Ph.D., shapes a piece of material for a new device while Joseph Hale, Ph.D. (foreground), looks on. Bryan Rolfes and Nikhil Murdeshwar, Ph.D. (background), make a model of another mechanical part.

What if?

It’s possible to look into the future of the medical industry by examining the projects that the IEM funds: a diverse range of multidisciplinary collaborations, most involving engineering students and medical staff and faculty. Interest group grants of $5,000, for example, are designed to get researchers talking and hatching collaborations. These nascent discussions might lead to a concrete project, or they might flicker out.

Larger grants of $100,000 or more go to projects already carrying significant momentum, such as those close to obtaining major support from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) or other funding sources in such areas as multimodal biomedical imaging (combining various brain imaging techniques to enhance their results), cell-based cardiac regeneration and repair, and medical device design.

In addition, the Medical Devices Center gives its own grants to member groups that are conducting research on new medical devices. Its recently funded projects include efforts to develop computer-assisted screening for retinal disease, to facilitate the design of medical devices in virtual reality, to create new magnetic heating devices for cancer therapy and drug and stem-cell delivery, and to produce a robotic scrub nurse that surgeons can use to retrieve tools and supplies in the operating room.

The IEM also supports innovative investigations with What If? grants. When IEM members pinpoint a medical need and settle upon an approach using new technology that offers a solution, What If? funds provide seed money of $5,000 to $15,000 to get the project going. It often allows the researchers to accumulate enough data to file provisional patent applications and attract interest from the NIH, NASA, and other major funders.

“We support the ‘eureka’ of the idea itself,” Bischoff says. “A clinician and an engineer may need to explore how a prospective medical device would change medicine and affect the special need they have identified. It’s speculative—a forward-thinking and progressive way of funding ideas.”

In the What If? program’s first two years, the IEM awarded $170,000 to 18 project teams. Three of those projects progressed to NIH grant applications for more research, two produced medical device prototypes, two (an absorbable nasal stapler and a bioartificial arachnoid shunt to prevent swelling and fluid buildup in the brain) resulted in provisional patents, and one sparked a clinical trial now under way. Currently funded projects include:

  • An implantable electrical sensing and stimulating catheter that also delivers drugs, being developed by a team of surgeons and a biomedical engineer;
  • A system to monitor hand disinfection compliance, in development by investigators from the departments of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Medicine, including the Division of Infectious Diseases; and
  • A cooling device to aid in the treatment of head and neck injuries, under investigation by a neurologist and a mechanical engineer.

Medical Devices Fellows Program director Marie Johnson, Ph.D., says she's looking for “tinkerers.”


Marie Johnson, Ph.D., director of the Medical Devices Fellows Program, knows exactly the kind of person who thrives in the interdisciplinary development of medical devices at the IEM. That type herself, she invented a computerized stethoscope to noninvasively detect coronary disease, and she improved her tiny office in the Shepherd Labs by building a platform that supports her desk and equipment while providing ingeniously designed storage space underneath.

“Tinkerers, that’s who we’re looking for,” she declares. “They identify unmet medical needs and find solutions. But they don’t rogue-invent devices that no one wants or will pay for. They hear the clear voice of the customer.” Johnson, who has completed three postdoctoral-level fellowships, scrutinizes the many applicants for the fellows program by putting top contenders through an eight-hour interview that includes mock brainstorming sessions.

After their selection, this year’s four fellows took the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator assessment, and three emerged as INTJs, an uncommon personality type distinctive for its drive to make sense of the world, design systems, and find out why things work. That sounds like a perfect summary of the University’s medical inventors.

Erdman, the Medical Devices Center director, believes medical-engineering inventors have other qualities that contribute to the success of such collaborations at the University: “They usually have a combination of a desire to improve health care—they don’t say the status quo is fine—with an entrepreneurial spirit that says, ‘Let’s make this work.’”

By Jack El-Hai

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