Bioscience and Engineering Converge

Biomedical Engineering Department at Georgia Tech and Emory University Marks 10th Anniversary

When former Georgia Institute of Technology President Wayne Clough broke ground on the first building of Georgia Tech's new Biotechnology Complex in May 1998, the shovel heralded more than just new brick and glass.

The 800,000 square feet of new buildings in the complex represent the convergence of bioscience and engineering, providing the foundation for a $27 million biomedical engineering research program that is now the second largest university-based program in the United States.

The centerpiece academic department for this research is the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University. Created in 1997, the Department joined the engineering expertise of Georgia Tech with the medical expertise of Emory University. Since then, the Department has grown to include 45 primary faculty members, 175 graduate students and more than 800 undergraduate students.

Beyond research, the Coulter Department has become an innovative center for education with a strong focus on problem-based learning, a student-centered instructional strategy in which students work in small collaborative groups to solve open-ended problems with a faculty member serving as facilitator. In the 'America's Best Colleges 2008' edition of U. S. News & World Report, the undergraduate program ranked third and the doctoral program ranked second in the biomedical engineering specialty category.

Marking its 10th anniversary this year, the Coulter Department continues to build its interdisciplinary programs to tackle the challenges of the 21st century, including cardiovascular disease, nerve injuries, neurological disorders and cancer.

Detecting Cardiovascular Disease

A team of Coulter Department researchers led by John Oshinski, assistant professor in the Coulter Department and Emory's Division of Radiology, has funding from the National Institutes of Health to use magnetic resonance imaging scans to predict where atherosclerotic plaques will form. Plaques form in artery walls because of cholesterol build-up. When they rupture, they can block blood vessels, leading to heart attack or stroke.

Coulter Department Professor Hanjoong Jo is developing drugs that inhibit the genes that are over-expressed when arteries are exposed to abnormal, nonlinear flow patterns.

Coulter Department Professor Gang Bao leads the Program of Excellence in Nanotechnology at Georgia Tech, which focuses on creating advanced nanotechnologies, such as nanoparticles and quantum dots, to detect and analyze cardiovascular disease. The $11.5 million program funded in April 2005 includes Coulter Department biomedical engineers and Emory University cardiologists and is funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

Reconnecting Nerves

Motor vehicle accidents and surgical procedures can damage peripheral nerves to varying degrees. Coulter Department professor Ravi Bellamkonda has demonstrated that thin polymer films made of aligned nanometer-diameter fibers provide topographical cues to stimulate nerve regeneration without growth-promoting proteins. Unlike peripheral nervous system damage, injury to the central nervous system, such as the brain or spinal cord, is not followed by extensive regeneration because of the hostile growth environment caused in large part by the injury.

To encourage the regeneration of damaged central nervous system neurons, Yadong Wang, a Coulter Department assistant professor, has shown that incorporating neurotransmitters into a biodegradable polymer spurs the growth of neurites, which are projections that form the connections among neurons and between neurons and other cells. This research was supported by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

The Complex Brain

How brains learn, or more specifically, how they acquire memories and behaviors, is of interest to Steve Potter, a Coulter Department associate professor. The process of learning is thought to correspond to changes in the relationships between neurons in the brain, but exactly how those changes are expressed at the network level is not well understood.

Xiaoping Hu, a Coulter Department professor and Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar, uses functional magnetic resonance imaging to study drug addiction, elderly brain health and long-term effects of prenatal alcohol exposure on brain development.

Eberhard Voit, a Coulter Department professor and Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar, and Gary Miller, an associate professor in Emory's Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, aim to better understand how genetic, environmental and pharmacological factors alter how dopamine functions in the brain. To do this, they developed a mathematical model of the dopamine network that allows them to study dopamine in healthy neurotransmission as well as in neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson's disease and schizophrenia.

Zenda Technologies, a company founded by associate professor Michelle LaPlaca and Emory's David Wright, aims to commercialize DETECT, a portable device that makes quick neuropsychological assessments. Such assessments could be important in identifying brain disorders such as concussion and early stages of Alzheimer's disease.

Understanding Cancer Pathways

Melissa Kemp, a Coulter Department assistant professor and Georgia Cancer Coalition Distinguished Professor, is using systems biology approaches to understand complex cancer pathways involved in drug-resistant acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a type of cancer of the white blood cells. Children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia exhibit a diverse response to chemotherapy, with about one-fourth of them relapsing with drug-resistant disease.

In collaboration with Harry Findley, an associate professor in Emory's Department of Pediatrics, Kemp is developing individualized computational models to identify key enzymes involved in regulating the protein NF-κB, which seems to play a role in drug resistance. This research is funded by Georgia Tech's Health Systems Institute and the Georgia Cancer Coalition.

The Coulter Department also hosts the Nanotechnology Center for Personalized and Predictive Oncology, funded by the National Cancer Institute. Led by Coulter Department Professor Shuming Nie, the center was launched in October 2005 and now boasts six projects and five support teams that focus on developing nanotechnologies for cancer applications. The amount awarded is expected to reach $27 million over a five-year period, which includes $19 million from the National Cancer Institute.

Center researchers are developing nanoparticles to image cancer inside the body and examine metastasis. They are also developing probes to study gene expression of cancer cells and treat cancer.

"A unique strength of this center is that we have broad faculty expertise from translational bioinformatics to clinical oncology, which will allow us to move some of these technologies into clinical trials in the next two to three years," says Nie.

This story was excerpted from a longer article in the Winter/Spring issue of Research Horizons Magazine.

The research projects described in this article that are funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the NIH or NSF.

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Media Relations Contacts: Abby Vogel (404-385-3364); E-mail: (avogel@gatech.edu) or John Toon (404-894-6986); E-mail: (jtoon@gatech.edu).

Writer: Abby Vogel

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