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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

A place to merge complementary minds

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Nancy Allbritton, Helen Huang and Frances Ligler discuss data.

Understanding everything there is to know about biomedical engineering is virtually impossible.

No one knows that more than Nancy Allbritton, who has chaired the joint Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME) at Carolina and N.C. State since 2009.

“I am old enough that biomedical engineering did not exist when I was in college,” said Allbritton, who earned a physics degree from Louisiana State University before pursuing a medical degree from Johns Hopkins and a Ph.D. from MIT in medical engineering and physics.

Later, at Stanford, she completed postdoctoral research “at the interface of cell biology and analytical chemistry.”

Almost by accident, she said, her academic path was circling a multidisciplinary field of inquiry she knew nothing about until 2004. That’s when she became a founding member of the biomedical engineering department at the University of California, Irvine.

She left California in 2007 to join Carolina’s chemistry department before she was tapped to lead BME two years later.

In the last five years, she has learned how much she still doesn’t know about BME – and really can’t know alone. And that is the lesson she is driving home at Carolina and N.C. State.

“We do not know yet how much we need each other,” she said.

An amiable merger

Several years ago, MIT produced a white paper that delineated a new research model – convergence – that draws on an ongoing merger of life sciences, physical sciences and engineering.

It is within that area of convergence, Allbritton said, that the BME program operates. Moreover, during the past decade, a plethora of new interdisciplinary research has emerged – bioinformatics, computational biology and tissue engineering – requiring not simply collaboration between disciplines, but true disciplinary integration.

But in the case of bioengineering, there was a problem, Allbritton said.

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A research assistant wears a sensor-covered cap at the biomedical engineering lab at N.C. State University.

Few universities have both medical schools and engineering schools to make this disciplinary integration work – the reason so many joint biomedical engineering programs sprang up across the country: in Atlanta, between Emory University and Georgia Tech; in the San Francisco Bay area, between UC-San Francisco and UC-Berkeley; in Virginia and North Carolina, between Wake Forest and Virginia Tech.

And in the Triangle, between Carolina and N.C. State. (Duke University, which has both medical and engineering schools, has its own biomedical engineering program.)

“When two universities are complementary, it makes sense to build a bridge between the two rather than try to duplicate one or the other,” Allbritton said. “State is one of the biggest engineering schools in the country, and there is an amazing level of excellence within that school that we could never replicate at Carolina. And the reciprocal is true for State regarding our tremendous School of Medicine.”

There are other schools and departments that have been drawn into this field of convergence as well, from N.C. State’s colleges of textiles and veterinary medicine to Carolina’s College of Arts and Sciences and the schools of pharmacy, public health and nursing.

“These two universities are so complementary, it is amazing,” Allbritton said. “There should really be a ton of collaborative projects between the two universities. BME should be one of many, not the only one.”

An unrealized promise

Joe DeSimone, who has joint appointments in chemistry at Carolina and chemical engineering at N.C. State, told Carolina’s Board of Trustees last summer that Carolina should be doing more to translate its burgeoning research enterprise into startup companies to help revive the state’s ailing economy.

And collaborations with N.C. State could help, he said.

DeSimone’s remarks fit the message Gov. Pat McCrory has emphasized: the need to better align educational programs in North Carolina’s community colleges and universities with current and future market demand for jobs.

No problem, Allbritton said.

All the key pieces are already present in the Triangle for BME to gain national prominence – and to have the kind of economic impact that DeSimone and McCrory have called for.

In fact, Allbritton sees a parallel between BME and the N.C. Biotechnology Center, which former Gov. Jim Hunt and N.C. legislators created three decades ago to spur replacements for lost traditional jobs in tobacco and textiles.

As a result of that spark, North Carolina ranks only behind California and Massachusetts in its cluster of biotechnology companies.

BME, Allbritton is convinced, holds that same potential to help North Carolina’s economy recover from the Great Recession. And she has the numbers to prove it.

“Guess what the No. 1 job in the country was last year, according to CNN Money?” she asked. “Biomedical engineering.”

In 2013, the field’s median pay was $87,000, the top pay was $134,000, and the 10-year growth rate was nearly 62 percent, Allbritton said.

Changing people’s lives

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Research assistants make adjustments to a bionic leg at the biomedical engineering lab at N.C. State University.

BME can be good for the economy because it is so good at improving people’s lives.

Nationally, bioengineers have already invented the MRI, the pacemaker and artificial joints. And at BME, professors and students from Carolina and N.C. State are working to improve prosthetics, design artificial organs and manufacture bioengineered skin.

Zhen Gu an assistant professor with BME, created a “smart” insulin delivery system that holds the potential to transform the way diabetics manage their blood glucose levels. Gu’s system is a nano-network composed of a mixture containing nanoparticles with a solid core of insulin, modified dextran and glucose oxidase enzymes.

When the enzymes are exposed to high glucose levels, they effectively convert glucose into gluconic acid, which breaks down the modified dextran and releases the insulin. The insulin then brings the glucose levels under control.

In tests of the technology with mice, one injection maintained blood sugar levels in the normal range for up to 10 days, Allbritton said.

Several years ago, BME instructor Andrew DiMeo asked the 60 students in his class to watch surgeries being performed and to ride in the back of ambulances.

As a result, they wanted to create a way to cool saline on demand – a solution doctors could use in emergencies to induce hypothermia to help protect the brain from the ravages of cardiac arrest or stroke.

The technology that they and their professors developed is called HypoCore and works instantly on the saline as it leaves an IV drip. Last spring, the technology led to the creation of Novocor Medical Systems Inc., a Raleigh-based company that is part of the Blackstone Entrepreneurs Network and has been invited to TEDMED’s “The Hive.” Novocor plans to file its product with the FDA.

At the Rehabilitation Engineering Center on N.C. State’s Centennial Campus, Helen Huang and her team are working on brain-connected prostheses that represent a revolutionary breakthrough in technology.

Recently, prosthetic legs have been powered with internal motors to improve the motion of the artificial limb. Huang’s project, in contrast, seeks to develop a connection between the prosthetic and the person using it. Her research team uses sensors to pick up the neuromuscular control signals from residual muscles in the area where the prosthetic is connected.

Huang said the goal is to develop an algorithm that translates those neuromuscular signals into machine language that can be used to program a powered bionic leg – making it easier for the person to move seamlessly from standing to walking to climbing stairs.

“We need to do a better job of sharing these kind of stories with the public,” Allbritton said. “If people knew more about this kind of work, they would understand how research-intensive universities like Carolina and State are contributing to the society that sustains them.”

Frances Ligler, a pioneer in the fields of biosensors and microfluidics, said what drew her to the joint BME department was the combination of strengths of the two universities.

Last fall, she was named the inaugural Lampe Distinguished Professor of Biomedical Engineering after spending 28 years at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C.

Ligler holds patents to 11 commercial biosensor products – devices that use biological materials to monitor the presence of chemicals in a substance. As part of BME, she is working to rebuild an organ system in three dimensions to learn more about how the component cells develop and function.

Her research – body-on-chip applications in microfluidic systems – fits well with the tissue regeneration work already happening at N.C. State’s engineering, textiles and veterinary medicine colleges. But she has another agenda as well.

“I’ve seen incredible inventions by undergraduates in the bioengineering areas,” Ligler said. “I’m at the give-back stage of my career, and I’m excited to help others grow.”

And that growth is what will make BME continue to succeed, Allbritton said.

Within its 10-year history, BME faculty have been involved in the spinout of 25 companies, with 10 percent of the graduate students involved in startups, Allbritton said.

“That gives you an idea of how entrepreneurial BME faculty already are,” she said. “What excites me even more is knowing they have only scratched the surface of what they can do.”