Yale sets its sights on biomedical engineering

Program gets a boost from NIH's newest institute with $7.1 million for imaging work in epilepsy.

Neurosurgeon Dennis Spencer believes new imaging technology could permit targeted surgery or drug delivery.
Neurosurgeon Dennis Spencer believes new imaging technology could permit targeted surgery or drug delivery.
Michael Marsland

In 1996, when President Richard C. Levin laid out his vision for the University’s future in an essay titled “Preparing for Yale’s Fourth Century,” he said that the principle of “selective excellence” would guide Yale as it branched out into certain new fields. “Rather than seek broad coverage of an entire discipline,” he wrote, “it may be wise to build a few distinguished groups of faculty who can compete with the best in the world in their areas of specialization.”

One of the areas Levin pointed to was biomedical engineering, a field that got its start when engineering strategies contributed to medical inventions such as X-rays and prosthetics. After World War II the field gained more formal acceptance as universities and hospitals discovered that radar and computers had medical applications. In 1998 Yale established an undergraduate biomedical engineering program, which has since become the most popular engineering major. Access to medical research facilities encouraged doctoral candidates in the applied physics and mechanical, chemical and electrical engineering departments to explore biological problems. A Ph.D. concentration focusing on medical imaging, molecular engineering and biomechanics was formally approved late last year, and five students will be admitted this year.

Biomedical engineering at Yale got another boost in April, when the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) awarded its first research grant to Yale and two other institutions. As a member of a team that includes the University of Minnesota and Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Yale will receive $1.4 million this year and up to $7.1 million over the next five years for the development of advanced imaging techniques for the treatment of neocortical epilepsy. Another sign that biomedical engineering’s day has come was the establishment of the NIBIB itself in 2000 as the newest member of the National Institutes of Health.

“Bioengineering, through imaging, offers a way for surgeons to examine the incredible and complex functions of the brain,” said neurosurgeon Dennis D. Spencer, M.D., HS ’76, co-principal investigator of the epilepsy project. Advances in imaging technology could eventually reduce surgery time, eliminating the need for electrodes and open-brain surgery, and instead permit targeted surgery or delivery of drugs through small openings in the skull, said Spencer, the Harvey and Kate Cushing Professor of Neurosurgery and the department’s chair.

According to principal investigator James S. Duncan, Ph.D., professor of diagnostic radiology and electrical engineering, mathematical models will be used to analyze an individual human brain before and during surgery to provide the surgeon with precise information in order to guide an intricate procedure that will eliminate the seizures. The technique combines data from both high-field magnetic resonance spectroscopy and functional magnetic resonance imaging to create a three-dimensional view of the brain, Duncan said in an interview in his office on Cedar Street, pointing to a rotating, computerized image of a human brain, with grids and boundaries in brilliant color.

The close collaboration of physicians and scientists from both sides of campus is not yet typical of American medicine, according to Paul A. Fleury, Ph.D., who came to Yale in 2000 as dean of engineering, succeeding Allan Bromley, Ph.D. Engineering strategies can be applied to countless biological systems and medical problems, Fleury said, yet “too often medical researchers regard engineers as ‘providers of gadgets,’ with little real collaboration. Overall, medical and engineering researchers have more to offer each other than what has been exploited so far.”

The challenge of the new educational programs is balancing breadth and depth in a number of subject areas, including mathematics and biochemistry, according to Duncan, an electrical engineer who began his career working on night vision systems at the Hughes Aircraft Company. He is the overall director of the program and also directs the undergraduate program, now in its fourth year. “We need math tools to even approach these problems, but we also need to talk with biologists and clinicians to understand the problems.”

Such collaborations cannot be dictated, but only emerge from genuine mutual curiosity, Fleury said. Engineering’s newest recruit is Cornell University’s W. Mark Saltzman, Ph.D., whose research focuses on drug delivery and tissue engineering, with an emphasis on the use of polymeric materials for these purposes rather than more costly animal proteins. His lab has designed polymer implants that permit controlled release, which could be applied to treating serious brain disease, including Alzheimer’s and brain tumors.

“The potential for collaboration between engineering and medicine is exactly what attracted me to Yale,” says Saltzman, who will be a professor of chemical and biomedical engineering. “Yale has a rich tradition of excellence in both of these areas and it has already established an interdisciplinary environment that supports the exchange of ideas across the interface. I believe that biomedical engineering is about to enter a period of tremendous growth, and Yale is well positioned to be at the leading edge of these developments.”

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  • Basic Science Departments
  • Biomedical Engineering