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Engineering-Based Medicine

Faculty Leading the Way

Personalized, precision medicine

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Rashid Bashir
Abel Bliss Professor of Engineering
Head of the Department of Bioengineering

“Too often on university campuses, we talk about different disciplines working in silos, barriers separating us from valuable collaborations. In the near future, engineers and medical students will be literally side by side learning about and solving medical problems every day.”

Bashir was a key member of the team that developed the plans for the new engineering-based medical school at Illinois, and co-author of the article, “Engineering as a new frontier for translational medicine,” that ran in the April 2015 issue of AAAS Science Translation Medicine. There, the authors noted that, “With uneven access to modern medicine across the globe, there is a pressing need for democratization of health care to deliver high-quality, cost-effective care; engineering can play a major role in meeting this critical need by enabling technologies that allow early detection, precise diagnostics, mobile health, and data-sharing for the realization of precision medicine.”

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Flexible electronics & bio-integration

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John Rogers
Swanlund Chair & Professor
Department of Materials Science and Engineering
Department of Chemistry
Director, Frederick Seitz Materials Research Laboratory

A dozen years ago, John Rogers discovered how to separate the circuitry from its silicon substrate pioneering completely new categories of flexible, stretchable, and transient electronics.

“In the early days, we were interested in bendable electronics for gadgets such as paper-like displays. A few chance encounters with neuroscientists and cardiologists opened our eyes to possibilities in biomedicine. The thin, flexible form factor of our electronics uniquely enables interfaces to the curved, time-dynamic surfaces of the body, for advanced capabilities in monitoring, stimulating and modulating biological function, with important consequences in human health.

“An entire, broad area of applications we weren’t originally even thinking about suddenly became obvious, and compelling—thereby changing, fundamentally, the orientation of our research programs. Bio-integration is one future goal. Inducing sensors, microbatteries, and microprocessors to self-assemble into open, 3-D formats, with filaments and arrays of interconnected structures that completely permeate a biological system. With several of these products already clinical trials and others ready to enter the marketplace, the future may arrive sooner than you think."

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Atoms to Organisms

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Klaus Schulten
Professor
Department of Physics
Department of Chemistry
Founder & Director, Theoretical and Computational Biophysics Group, Beckman Institute
Co-director of the Center for Physics of Living Cells
Professor in the Center for Advance Study, University of Illinois

A leader in the field of computational biophysics, Klaus Schulten has devoted more than 40 years to establishing the physical mechanisms underlying processes and organization in living systems from the atomic- to organism-scale. As founder and director of the internationally recognized Theoretical and Computational Biophysics Group (TCBG)—which operates the NIH Center for Macromolecular Modeling and Bioinformatics at Illinois—Schulten is a strong proponent of using simulation as a "computational microscope" to augment experimental research.

“The intersection of TCBG and the supercomputer comes into play because living cells are made of molecules,” Schulten said. “Our group has been looking at the molecular and atomic world since its founding in 1989, very often utilizing its tools NAMD, VMD, and MDFF in concert with high-performance computing. In recent years, TCBG has been able to examine bigger and bigger assemblies of molecules, with the goal of explaining biological organization.”

Since 2008, Schulten has served as co-director of the NSF-funded Center for the Physics of Living Cells. His contributions to the field of biophysics include key discoveries across several fields—from quantum biology of vision, photosynthesis, and animal navigation to ion channels employed in neural signaling and to neural network organization of brain function; from mechanically gated channel proteins to muscle protein mechanics; from mathematical physics of non-equilibrium processes to numerical mathematics of the classical many-body problem.

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Zeroing in on Cancer

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Princess Imoukhuede
Assistant Professor
Department of Bioengineering

While current drug therapies have had limited success in improving the survival of breast cancer patients, a new approach involving blocking tumors from getting the nutrients they need for growth holds great promise. Biongineering professor Princess Imoukhuede’s lab group is using computers and nanotechnology to establish a better understanding of tumor growth.

The team has used computer modeling to suggest ways to improve anti-cancer therapies, and they developed state-of-the-art nanosensors to separate key molecules in tumors. Their long-term goal is to create an individualized “Virtual Patient” database that would allow doctors to use nanosensors to screen a patient’s biopsy. The biopsy results would then be plugged into the Virtual Patient to determine the best treatment approach, one that is tailored specifically to each breast cancer patient. In her research, Imoukhuede wants to transform the frontiers of systems biology and cancer research by focusing on two of the field’s grand challenges.

First, if researchers can develop a way to profile and interpret differences in tumors (tumor heterogeneity), they may be able to use that information to treat patients more effectively. Imoukhuede’s research goals involve developing novel nanosensors for improved sensing of cellular differences.

The second involves predictive medicine. Currently, most physicians are diagnosing and reacting to cancer, but the development of predictive methods could help prevent or at least lessen the impact of cancer. Imoukhuede’s goal is to advance predictive medicine by using the body of tumor knowledge in a computational framework to inform physicians which therapies might be best and how to predict a patient’s response to them.

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Educating Cancer Scholars

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Rohit Bhargava
Abel Bliss Professor of Engineering
Department of Bioengineering

Bioengineering professor Rohit Bhargava had a novel idea in shifting the paradigm of training the next generation of cancer researchers and in the process is challenging the current model of undergraduate education.

To that end, Bhargava is leading a pilot “Cancer Scholars Program” within the College of Engineering in which he puts into practice a “challenge-inspired education model.” Instead of students going through studies and eventually applying learning into the workforce, the students within the program are taking what they are learning and looking at it through a prism of cancer research from the beginning.

Cancer scholars take the same courses as the rest of the bioengineering majors, but there is an additional overlay of experiences where these students will consider how what they are learning pertains to cancer.

“All of our students hope to impact the world in a positive way,” Bhargava said. “The key problems are how they going to have this impact and how we are preparing them to do so. These are the questions we started asking and that led to the genesis of the program. In this paradigm, we ask students what they are interested in from the beginning and tailor the education the best we can to that interest. We want to provide a parallel support system to this linear system of pure research and pure training. We are trying to fill in the gaps.”

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Using X-Ray to Target Tumors

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Ling-Jian Meng
Associate Professor
Department of Nuclear, Plasma and Radiological Engineering

“The new Functional X-ray Imaging Lab (FXIL) is very comprehensively equipped and is one-of-a-kind in the world.” FXIL will allow Meng’s team and his collaborators to study X-ray induced/modulated anti-cancer therapeutic techniques. With the strong X-ray beam tuned at specific X-ray energies, one could selectively stimulate a micro-area around or inside a tumor tissue. This stimulation could trigger a local therapeutic effect by releasing anti-cancer drugs that specifically designed nanoparticles carry to the target.

A $2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health and Illinois’ NPRE department provided funding for Meng’s team to construct FXIL. The facility consists of a walk-in closet equipped with four different X-ray sources, a wide variety of X-ray imaging and spectroscopic detectors, an optical photon imaging camera based on state-of-the-art intensified EMCCD detectors, and potentially a regular emission tomography system integrated ion beam line.

FXIL offers highly unique X-ray imaging techniques for a wide range of biomedical imaging applications, including micro X-ray computed tomography (CT), X-ray florescent CT (XFCT), X-ray luminescent CT (XLCT) and nanobeam therapy. It can be used in microbiology and nano-medicine, potentially novel bio-imaging technologies, and to monitor cancer micro-biology.

“With the bench-top system, we can focus the beam to stimulate an area as small as 30 microns in diameter. We are exploring a combined X-ray photodynamic therapy and localized X-ray imaging strategy that could allow researchers to visualize the exact therapeutic delivery process, and potentially the inhomogeneous response of the tumor to the treatment.”

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Smartphone biosensing

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Brian Cunningham
Professor
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Department of Bioengineering
Director, Micro and Nanotechnology Laboratory

After earning three engineering degrees from Illinois, Brian Cunningham initially worked in the defense industry, helping develop infrared detectors for heat-seeking missiles, gyroscopes and accelerometers for guided missiles, and, later, biosensors to detect biological and chemical attacks.

Internationally recognized for his contributions to the advancement of photonic crystal-based biosensing, Cunningham and his team have developed monitors that can detect biomarkers for cancer—including early-stage breast cancer—in a single drop of blood. Other systems can determine the amount of HIV virus present in the human body, identify food allergens for individuals with severe allergies, or authenticate drugs delivered to clinics and physicians.

His group currently has several parallel efforts underway, including smartphone-based detection systems, early cancer detection, and a new form of microscopy for studying stem cell behavior. A new NSF-funded study will develop a smartphone-based system for mobile infectious disease detection and epidemiology. Field results shared with a cloud-based data management service will enable physicians to rapidly visualize the geographical and temporal spread of infectious disease, informing treatment and quarantine responses.

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Novel imaging solutions

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Stephen Boppart
Professor
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Department of Bioengineering
College of Medicine

As an electrical engineering undergraduate at Illinois, Stephen Boppart had the opportunity to work with a bioengineering professor interested in collecting electrical signals from neurons.

“That’s what got me interested in bioengineering. For graduate school, I applied into a medical engineering program. There, I was developing these imaging technologies—looking at tissues—I wanted to know more about what I was looking at.” Having taken a number of medical school classes already, Boppart transferred in as a third-year medical student, completing his MD while continuing to develop a novel imaging technology—optical coherence tomography (OCT), which uses light to image tissue in real time.

“Being exposed to the medical culture, I saw lots of technical challenges that engineers could help solve.” Since his medical residency, which included work at Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana, Boppart has applied OCT to study previously hidden structures—from the retina within the eye, to biofilms that reside in the middle ear. Recently, his team has demonstrated, for the first time, the use of OCT for imaging tumor margins within a patient during cancer surgery.

“Carle has long been an early adopter of a variety of technologies. Engineering and technology will completely revolutionize the health sciences and healthcare. I think our campus is positioning itself to be a leader in this revolution.”

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Creating Functional Biomaterials

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Cecilia Leal
Assistant Professor
Department of Materials Science and Engineering

Cecilia Leal’s interdisciplinary research group is investigating how biological matter self-organizes and how these processes can be exploited to create functional biomaterials.

“We are currently working on the encapsulation of nucleic acids within lipid membranes to create novel structures that are capable of penetrating cells for gene therapy applications. We also work with adsorbed biomaterials that modify the surfaces of macroscale drug delivery platforms in order to attain controlled and on-demand drug elution from medical devices."

"It is attractive to me that we can apply some fundamental science and engineering tools to tackle questions pertinent to medicine. As science evolves, engineering concepts are becoming integral to understanding and manipulating processes at the single molecule level."

"The overarching goal of our research is to build a fundamental understanding of the interactions in biological and soft matter that are instrumental to engineering of better medicines. It’s a new engineering era where interdisciplinary thought is key and I like being part of that.”

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Surgical Robotics

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Thenkurussi Kesavadas
Professor
Department of Industrial and Enterprise Systems Engineering
Director, Health Care Engineering Systems Center

Thenkurussi (Kesh) Kesavadas is the first director of the Health Care Engineering Systems Center (HCESC) which provides clinical immersion to engineers and fosters collaborations between engineers and physicians. The aim is to develop new technologies and cyber-physical systems, enhance medical training and practice, and in collaboration with key partners, drive the training of medical practitioners of the future.

Kesavadas has been in the forefront of virtual reality and its application to medicine since 1993, when this field was still in its infancy. His own research interests are in the areas of medical robotics and simulation, virtual reality in design, haptics, and human-computer interaction. He developed the world’s first stand-alone virtual reality Robotic Surgical Simulator RoSS and also co-founded two start-up companies.

In addition to leading the development of the HCESC and its research programs, Kesavadas also serves as “Engineer in Chief” of the Jump ARCHES collaborative partnership between the Engineering at Illinois and health care providers at OSF HealthCare and at the University of Illinois’ College of Medicine at Peoria.

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Cell mechanics and nanoscale materials

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Taher Saif
Edward William and Jane Marr Gutgsell Professor
Associate Head of Graduate Programs and Research
Department of Mechanical Science and Engineering

Professor Saif's research focuses on the mechanics of nanoscale materials and living cells. He uses both theory and experiment to explore (1) the effect of size on the mechanics of materials, and (2) the role of mechanical force in determining the functionality of cells and cell clusters.

Professor Saif demonstrated experimentally, for the first time, that plastic deformation in nanocrystalline metal films can be reversible. After plastic deformation, metals with grain sizes between 50 and 100 nanometers recover most of their plastic strain under macroscopically stress-free condition. This recovery is time dependent and thermally activated. Saif showed that the recovery originates from the small size and heterogeniety of microstructure of the metal specimens. The research, which was reported in Science, raises the possibility of manufacturing metal components that can heal themselves after being deformed or dented.

In the area of cellular mechanics, Professor Saif's projects involve neurons, cancer and cardiac cells, and interactions between cells in clusters. He seeks to address questions such as: What is the role of tension in neurons on memory and learning? Does mechanical microenvironment influence the onset of metastasis during cancer development? Can clusters of cells be guided so that they evolve into biological machines? He, together with Professor Akira Chiba of the the University of Maimi, showed that neurons are under mechanical tension, and that such tension might be essential for memory and learning.

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