Finding New Ways for Surgeons and Engineers to Collaborate

In some ways, it seems like a perfect match: surgeons need better ways of delivering healthcare to patients. Engineers want to find new ways to help people.

The possibilities of surgeons/engineer collaborations have led to everything from new medical devices to new decision making tools.

So why isn’t it happening more often?

That’s what two surgeons from the Feinberg School of Medicine came to the McCormick School of Engineering to discuss. Nathaniel Soper, Loyal and Edith Davis Professor and Chairman of the Department of Surgery, and David Mahvi, James R. Hines Professor of Surgery and Chief of Gastrointestinal and Oncologic Surgery, spoke about surgery-engineering interfaces as part of the Dean’s Seminar Series on Jan. 19.

Click here to watch a video of the presentation.

The barriers between the two fields at Northwestern are both physical (two separate campuses), mental (everyone is busy, surgeons generally aren’t big risk takers), and regulatory — getting a medical device to market takes years of work and sloughing through red tape.

“It’s an enormous problem for us,” Mahvi said. He should know — as a surgeon, he wanted to look for a new way to kill liver tumors. Tumors are notoriously difficult to remove from the liver because the organ itself is highly vascular — any incision causes intense bleeding. Mahvi worked with engineers and graduate students at his previous institution for years to develop a new ablation system that uses microwaves to destroy tumors. The device the team developed is now in commercial use in more than 200 hospitals in the United States.

Success stories like Mahvi’s are not uncommon between McCormick and Feinberg: faculty members like Gordon Hazen and Sanjay Mehrotra, professors of industrial engineering, have used their skills in decision analysis tools to help determine the best rotation periods for surgical residents and how donated organs should be distributed. Guillermo Ameer, associate professor of biomedical engineering, has worked with Melina Kibbe, associate professor of vascular surgery at Feinberg, to develop a liquid polymer that can form to the contours of an artery to provide a custom-made stent. Chang Liu, professor of electrical engineering and computer science and mechanical engineering, has collaborated with Carla Pugh, assistant professor of surgery, on creating simulation devices for medical training.

The schools also work together through classes like NUvention: Medical Innovation, where students from Feinberg, McCormick, Weinberg and the Law School come together in teams to develop a medical device and create a business plan for the idea. Several teams have gone on to turn their ideas into businesses.

But how can we further collaborations? That’s an ongoing discussion that Soper and Mahvi turned to the professors in the audience. Perhaps a website? Perhaps a retreat?

“We need to figure out how to make this work between us,” Soper said.  “We were meant to take care of humans, and we can do it better if we work together.”