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New Approach to Global Health Challenges

Published: Friday, September 27, 2013
Last Updated: Friday, September 27, 2013
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MIT’s Institute for Medical Engineering and Science brings many tools to the quest for new disease treatments and diagnostic devices.

MIT’s new Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES) is tackling some of the world’s biggest health challenges through an interdisciplinary approach that will seek new ways to diagnose and treat infectious, neurological and cardiovascular diseases.

Solving those challenges will require bringing together many types of expertise, said MIT President L. Rafael Reif, who urged researchers to “be bold, think big, and save the world” at an inaugural symposium, held Sept. 25, to celebrate IMES’s launch.

The new institute aims to become a hub for medical research, IMES director Arup Chakraborty said, allowing MIT scientists and engineers to work more closely with hospitals, medical-device manufacturers, and pharmaceutical companies in the Boston and Cambridge area.

“We aim to serve as a strong integrative force across the MIT campus and bring together our work in discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship and partner with hospitals, Harvard Medical School and industry to create the future of medicine and health care. There is no better location in the world than here to try and do this,” said Chakraborty, the Robert T. Haslam Professor of Chemical Engineering, Chemistry, Physics and Biological Engineering at MIT.

IMES, which is now home to the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology (HST), will also train the next generation of innovators at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. IMES will add a new program with the MIT Sloan School of Management and a new curriculum in health-care informatics, said Emery Brown, associate director of IMES. “We’re going to expand on what is already a 40-year success with the HST program with Harvard Medical School,” said Brown, the Edward Hood Taplin Professor of Medical Engineering at MIT.

IMES also includes MIT’s Medical Electronic Device Realization Center, which is devoted to developing new medical devices for diagnosis and disease monitoring, in collaboration with industrial partners.

Grand challenges

Speakers at the symposium outlined some of the health challenges now facing the world and offered thoughts on how to tackle them.

Gregory Petsko, a professor of neurology and neuroscience at Weill Cornell Medical College, said that as life spans continue to increase around the world, more and more people will suffer from neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease. “The older you get, the greater your risk for one of the major neurodegenerative diseases,” he said.

There are now 5 million people with Alzheimer’s in the United States, a figure that is expected to grow to nearly 14 million by 2050. At the same time, the worldwide total is projected to reach 100 million.

Petsko, who described potential drugs he is developing to interfere with the formation of Alzheimer’s plaques, said he and other scientists need help from engineers to find optimal ways to deliver their drugs to the brain. Engineers can also lend their expertise in designing devices that can test for disease biomarkers that scientists may discover in the future, he said.

“This is a problem that largely is going to have to have engineering solutions. We have to find biomarkers, but there have to be ways to identify those markers in living people inexpensively and, in some cases, rapidly,” Petsko said.

Trevor Mundel, president of the global health program at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said he hopes the foundation and IMES will have opportunities to work together.

“I see a lot of synergies and intersections between IMES and the Gates Foundation,” Mundel said. “At the high level, we both want to have real impact and do things in the real world, not just be theoretical and have some abstract discussions.”

Mundel said that when creating new technology for developing countries, it is critical to be aware of the local environment and the needs of the people living there. For example, a recently deployed diagnostic device for tuberculosis turned out to be ill-suited to remote clinics because it took too long to produce a result.

“We had in mind a profile of what was really needed, and what we got out was not quite there. What I have found out is that ‘not quite there,’ in these infrastructure-poor areas, is not there at all,” Mundel said. “The global-health community all too often produces products which were almost there, but they’re not good enough for the countries and the infrastructure where they actually need to be deployed.”

Building bridges across disciplines

While IMES is breaking new ground, it is also building on a long history of medical research at MIT. In 2011, Reif, then MIT’s provost, asked a faculty committee to examine the future of HST, established in 1969 to train physician-scientists.

The committee found that while many scientists and engineers at MIT were working on projects together, these efforts were not centrally organized. Furthermore, MIT was not taking full advantage of its close proximity to nearby world-class hospitals. IMES was established in July 2012 to formalize and strengthen those connections.

“We needed a structure that would allow MIT and its clinical colleagues to make the most of each other’s strengths, working together on the most important problems and seizing opportunities to drive systemic change,” Reif said at yesterday’s symposium.

In establishing IMES, Chakraborty and others drew inspiration from the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT and the Ragon Institute of Harvard, MIT and Massachusetts General Hospital.

Bruce Walker, director of the Ragon Institute, said he launched that institute, whose mission is to develop HIV vaccines, because he had become frustrated with the isolated nature of most HIV research. It was difficult to bring in scientists or engineers from outside the field and even harder to obtain funding for innovative interdisciplinary projects, he told symposium attendees.

“Our feeling was the full toolbox had never really been applied to the HIV problem, and my sense from interactions with the Broad Institute and others that I had begun to get engaged with here was that we could really accelerate progress if we could get more engineers and physicists and computational biologists to come to the table,” Walker said.

Likewise, Koch Institute director Tyler Jacks wanted to bring new perspectives and expertise to MIT’s research on cancer. In 2010, cancer biologists and engineers moved into a new Koch Institute building, which is designed to foster chance interactions and new collaborations, Jacks said.

Making sure that scientists and engineers have ample opportunities to talk about their research and learn the language of other fields is key to successful collaborations, Jacks said.

“I sometimes describe this place like Ellis Island,” he said. “You’ve got people bumping into each other who don’t speak the same language. Chemical engineers have to talk to molecular biologists. Mechanical engineers have to talk to cell biologists. This takes some effort, and we’ve worked quite hard to try to enable better communication and education among the people who are experiencing the Koch Institute.”

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