McCormick School of Engineering, Northwestern University
Engineering and Medicine
Just 100 years ago, a simple infection could have spelled doom for an otherwise healthy patient. But over the past century, the rate of discovery in medicine and technology has exploded exponentially, as scientists and engineers have found new cures and diagnostics for society’s greatest medical challenges.
Yet as we move through the 21st century, scientists and engineers realize that the future of medicine will be found in new ways of thinking, such as searching the nanoarchitecture of cells for evidence of cancer, growing egg follicles outside the womb, or using citric acid to develop ligaments.
Breakthroughs at this level require researchers who understand not only science but also the application of that science to medical problems. Faculty members at McCormick bridge this gap from concept to application, and several are tackling the mammoth problem of medicine: cancer.
Easy Detection = Early Detection
Consider Vadim Backman, professor of biomedical engineering, whose goal is to develop screening tools that would allow patients to be easily screened for major types of cancer in a visit to their primary care physician.
Backman and his team are creating a suite of tools that use optical technologies to analyze cells for the presence of cancer. They have shown that nanoscale changes in cells caused by cancer can be detected using optical techniques called partial-wave spectroscopy, low-coherence enhanced backscattering spectroscopy, and four-dimensional elastic light-scattering fingerprinting. These technologies make use of a biological phenomenon known as the “field effect,” a hypothesis that suggests that cancer causes changes that can be detected throughout the organ and even in neighboring tissue.
With colon cancer, for example, Backman has shown how computer analysis of the way light shines, scatters, and bounces off tissue samples taken from the rectum can show the “fingerprint” of colon cancer in the nanoarchitecture of the cells. To detect pancreatic cancer — a cancer so notoriously difficult to detect that it has a five-year survival rate of just 5 percent — Backman has taken cells from the duodenum (part of the small intestine) and used this approach to accurately discriminate with 95 percent sensitivity between healthy patients and those with the disease.
Backman’s group is now expanding these tools to test them on lung, ovarian, and esophageal cancers. None of this would be possible, he says, without collaboration across disciplines and between academia and the clinic. “Our program here at Northwestern is a truly collaborative, very integrative, translational program where you have an exchange of ideas between clinicians and engineers resulting in significant symmetries,” he says.
Hope After Treatment
While Backman focuses on cancer screening, Lonnie Shea, professor of chemical and biological engineering, and his collaborators help women who have survived cancer.
Chemotherapy and radiation can leave female cancer survivors infertile, but Shea and Teresa Woodruff, Thomas J. Watkins Memorial Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Feinberg School of Medicine, have worked together to create an ex vivo (outside of the body) environment in which a young follicle — an egg and the spherical group of specialized cells that surround it — can grow and mature to a stage at which the egg can be fertilized and implanted into the uterus. This technique could allow women to cryogenically preserve ovarian tissue containing follicles prior to cancer treatment, then use the tissue to obtain mature eggs when they are ready to start a family.
This collaboration in oncofertility brings together faculty from across disciplines who are focused on one goal. “Now we have teams of people that are thinking about how can we best manage fertility options for patients that were never considered before,” Shea says.
In addition to studying cancer, faculty members are working to develop new materials inspired by nature. Guillermo Ameer, associate professor of biomedical engineering, uses citric acid as the base for new polyester biomaterials that could help the body accept medical implants, develop replacement ligaments for injuries, and deliver drugs within the body. Phillip Messersmith, professor of biomedical engineering, is creating bio-inspired materials to repair, replace, or augment human tissue. Messersmith has created a new kind of adhesive called geckel, which mimics and combines the adhesive properties of geckos and mussels and stays sticky underwater.
Other faculty members are working on new devices for health care. Chang Liu, professor of mechanical engineering and of electrical engineering and computer science, is developing new kinds of contact, flow, and touch sensors that may be useful in health-care settings.
Contact sensors could be used in catheters for minimally invasive surgery, flow sensors could be used in IV lines, and touch sensors are already used in robotic surgical tools to help increase efficiency and accuracy. “These sensors also alleviate the need to constantly monitor a patient, which will reduce health-care costs and give the patient more privacy and independence,” Liu says.
David Kelso, professor of biomedical engineering, and his lab have created two low-cost HIV tests for use in developing countries by taking existing tests and modifying them to work in small, battery-operated devices.
Kelso, who directs the Center for Innovation in Global Health Technologies, leads student projects to create new kinds of diagnostic and treatment options for diseases in developing countries, like South Africa. Northwestern students have traveled there and brought digital X-ray systems to clinics, developed a tuberculosis tracking system, and created an apnea monitor for premature infants. “Projects like these take engineering out of the academic setting and give it a humanitarian goal,” Kelso says.
Perhaps Lonnie Shea puts it best when he says providing life-changing diagnostics, treatments, and lifestyle options like these makes all the hard work worth it. “That’s really what keeps us going,” he says.
Director of Research Administration