Convergence of Engineering and the Life Sciences: A Prescription for Improving the Economy and Quality of Life

Forty years ago, a mechanical engineering professor at NJIT was invited to teach a course at New Jersey Medical School in the emerging specialty of biomechanics. In his class was a young orthopedics resident with some ideas about designing artificial joints. The partnership that evolved between NJIT’s Prof. Mike Pappas and UMDNJ’s Dr. Fred Buechel led to the development of the New Jersey Knee, and subsequently to 150 U.S. and international patents, more than 50 papers, and several million successful joint replacements which help millions of people walk.

This early instance of what has become known as the convergence of life and healthcare science and engineering was considered something of an anomaly in the 1970s, with little common ground between the professions. In the intervening years, cascading breakthroughs and advances, particularly in information technology and the life sciences, have created a new interdependence among engineering, the physical sciences, computer science and math, and the biomedical sciences. This convergence, one of the major strategic themes for NJIT, is the rationale behind the university’s planned Integrative Life Science and Engineering Laboratory Building, a initiative that to renovate and expand laboratories dedicated to the life sciences, adding leading-edge instrumentation to core infrastructure and  information-age technology to connect people and equipment to the global research community. The university has applied for funding from the proceeds of State bond funds to partially fund the project.

“The Integrative Life Science and Engineering Laboratory Building will bring together researchers and students from biology, biomedical engineering, pharmaceutical chemistry, biochemistry, biophysics, and mathematical biology,” said Joel S. Bloom, president of NJIT. “A facility of this type is critical to the state’s Bio/Pharma and Life Sciences industry cluster. The synergy and collaboration that take place in this center will produce stunning innovations at the interface of biological sciences and engineering.”

A snapshot of how the work of many disciplines come together in the life sciences can be seen in the projects funded at NJIT by the National Institutes of Health.

NIH support projects in the Biomedical Engineering Department are:

Bharat Biswal Professor and chair Bharat Biswal uses functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a technology that measures brain activity by detecting associated changes in blood flow, to look at changes in neuronal activity. He leads an NIH-supported study at New Jersey Medical School to determine the biophysical aspects of aging and participates in a study at the Medical College of Wisconsin that looks at the role of the brain in disease.
sergei adamovich Associate Professor Sergei Adamovich leads a team that is helping stroke patients regain use of their hands and arms through innovative robotic and virtual reality-based video game therapies. His Robot Assisted Virtual Rehabilitation lab focuses on in the design of optimal, personalized, and dynamic strategies for rehabilitation of hand and arm function in patients with such disorders as cerebral palsy and stroke. The team utilizes brain imaging to evaluate the effects of sensory manipulation on brain activation patterns and to learn more about the changes that take place in the brain during rehabilitation. He partners with Dr. Alma S. Merians, director of the Department of Rehabilitation and Movement Science at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.
mesut sahin Associate Professor Mesut Sahin is studying development of neural prostheses – devices and technologies for interfacing with the central nervous system. He is developing an interface between a patient’s brain and a computer so that the paralyzed individual can control his own wheelchair and other equipment without help from a caregiver. He hopes to extract the volitional motor signals from the proximal spinal cord that is still intact above the site of injury.  A second NIH-funded project focuses on developing and testing a technology called floating light activated micro-electrical stimulators (FLAMES) for wireless activation of the central nervous system. Implanted in the spinal cord and energized by an infrared light beam through an optical fiber located outside the dura mater, FLAMES can allow victims of spinal cord injuries to regain the control of paralyzed muscles.

From Chemistry and Environmental Science

edgardo farinas Associate professor and chair of chemistry and environmental science Edgardo Farinas is working to engineer proteins designed to order. He is stabilizing G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs) which transmit most cellular responses across cell membranes and are involved in almost every physiological process. Irregular control of these receptors leads to pathological conditions, and so these proteins are major drugs targets. He hopes to engineer GPCRs with enhanced stability by mimicking evolution in a test tube to further understand the process of activation and deactivation at the molecular level.

From Physics

Reginald Farrow and Gordon Thomas Reginald Farrow, research professor, and Gordon Thomas, professor, are two of NJIT’s most prolific inventors. They recently received a patent for their NJIT SmartShunt, a device that enables the non-invasive wireless monitoring of a shunt that drains fluid out of the brain for patients suffering from severe excess pressure in the brain due to hydrocephalus or brain injury. They received a $3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health for work on the smart shunt with Dr. Joseph Madsen of Children’s Hospital Boston and Infoscitex Corporation.

From Mathematical Sciences and Biological Sciences

Jorge Golowasch Jorge Golowasch, professor and chair, studies the relationship between biological rhythms and neuroactive substances such as neuromodulators, hormones and neurotransmitters. He is looking into the mechanisms by which neuromodulators and the neuronal networks’ own activity regulate rhythmic pattern generation to understand the normal function of the nervous system. The capacity to recover stable neuronal output following disease or trauma may be of enormous therapeutic relevance and lead to the design of effective treatments for trauma, memory and sleep disorders.
Farzan Nadim Professor Farzan Nadim's research focus is to understand how synaptic dynamics, such as short-term depression and facilitation contribute to the generation and control of oscillatory neuronal activity. Such synaptic dynamics are found ubiquitously in all parts of the nervous systems. He hopes to gain an understanding of how synaptic dynamics such as short-term depression and facilitation contribute to the generation and control of uninterrupted patterns of neuron activity, providing insights into neurological disorders such as epilepsy.

From Business and Management

Cesar Bandera Assistant Professor Cesar Bandera focuses his research on the emerging field of mobile- or m-health. Through his company Cell Podium, he has NIH support to develop applications for environmental public health outreach and training via cell phone. In 2010-2011, he was enlisted by the Center for Disease Control to help train clinicians in Haiti who were treating victims of a cholera epidemic.  He also has grant support from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to employ m-health technology to improve safety and construction sites.

From Computer Science

Yehoshua Perl and James Geller Professors Yehoshua Perl and James Geller focus their research on large terminological databases – how to efficiently store and retrieve knowledge in huge repositories, and to develop new approaches to extract the meaning and assure the integrity of stored knowledge. They have been involved in developing a simplified, compact semantic network to organize the large, complex clinical databases used in hospitals. They recently completed two studies supported by the National Library of Medicine with over $2.5 million, to track down and correct incorrect or misplaced medical terms. The systems studied are the Unified Medical Language System, a terminological knowledge base of 2.6 million concepts taken from 160 specialized medical terminologies, and SNOMED CT, an international clinical terminology of over 300,000 concepts used for coding in Electronic Health Records.