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Researchers at a new Center for Biomedical Engineering at Columbia University are borrowing engineering technologies to solve medical problems.
They are studying how to ease limb motion when soft tissue deteriorates around joints in osteoarthritis, which affects some 32 million people in the United States; how to treat hearing loss by better understanding how sound passes through hair cells in the outer ear, and how to fight heart disease with combinations of drugs and mechanical support.
The Center, a cooperative venture of the College of Physicians & Surgeons and the School of Engineering and Applied Science, has $3.3 million in new funding, including a major grant of $995,610 from the Whitaker Foundation. The University has supplied another $2.3 million in operational and matching funds.
Columbia was one of eight universities recently named to receive major funding from the private, nonprofit foundation, which supports research and training in biomedical engineering. The grant will help establish new undergraduate and graduate courses, recruit three new tenure-track faculty members, enroll more students and postdoctoral fellows and construct and equip new offices and laboratories, to be located on the Morningside Heights campus.
"Medical scientists are now using engineering technologies to tackle a host of formerly intractable problems, to humanity's benefit," Columbia President George Rupp said. "With the Center for Biomedical Engineering, Columbia renews its commitment to leading-edge medicine and unifies and integrates two related fields of study."
Research and education initiatives will focus initially on three areas where Columbia engineers are already deeply involved: tissue biomechanics and biochemistry; artificial organs and biomedical devices; and magnetic resonance imaging, using the University's 4.23 Tesla superconducting magnet, one of the world's most powerful. Thirty Columbia faculty are affiliated with the Center.
Plans to expand the Center into an academic department devoted to biomedical engineering could be realized within three years, said Van C. Mow, professor of mechanical engineering and orthopedic bioengineering, director of the Orthopedic Research Laboratory and the first director of the Center.
"This relatively new field combines the techniques of engineering and medicine to prevent, diagnose and treat disease," Dr. Mow said."Biomedical engineers can be called upon not only to design instruments and devices, but also to carry out research to develop procedures or to solve problems. They are experts in applying technology to medical problems."
In the laboratory that Dr. Mow directs on the 14th floor of the Black Medical Research Building, medical students and surgeons can move human leg bones in a tracking device that shows how different surgical procedures affect the knee joint's range and motion. A cow's shoulder joint awaits practice surgery. A computer-controlled imaging system allows views of joints and organs from multiple angles, and computers are also used for anatomical graphic studies. Funds from the National Science Foundation will purchase a rapid prototyping machine that will translate computer plans into three-dimensional prototypes.
Two faculty members and a postdoctoral researcher have already been recruited. X. Edward Guo, a Harvard-MIT Health Sciences Ph.D. who recently completed two years of postdoctoral research on bone biomechanics at the University of Michigan, has been appointed assistant professor of mechanical engineering. James L. Thomas, a Cornell Ph.D. who has just completed four years of postdoctoral research in membrane biophysics, has been appointed assistant professor of chemical engineering. Clark T. Huang, a bioengineering Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, will research the effects of microgravity on tissue metabolism for NASA's space shuttle program.
The work in tissue biomechanics reveals how joints and muscles combine to produce motion; it is a collaborative strength at Columbia that has evolved over the last 10 years. It draws on extensive work on musculoskeletal and orthopedic research, and involves leading mechanical engineers, biochemists and orthopedic surgeons, including, in addition to Dr. Mow, Harold Dick, M.D., Stinchfield Professor and Chairman of the Department of Orthopedic Surgery.
The work in artificial organs is focused how blood cells react with artificial surfaces, blood-clotting processes that continue to limit the use of these devices, and the use of artificial organs to treat diseases of the immune system, including some cancers and chronic bacterial infections. Edward F. Leonard, professor of chemical engineering and applied chemistry, is principal investigator of a three-year, $704,000 Whitaker grant to study fetal cells by isolating them from samples of maternal blood. Fetal cell sampling may help avoid amniocentesis, an expensive procedure that has a 2 percent risk of spontaneous abortion. Professor Leonard founded the Artificial Organs Research Laboratory in 1968 and continues to direct it; he will also serve as vice chairman of the new Center.
A team of electrical engineers, computer scientists and radiologists is continuing the development of the University's superconducting magnet at the Hatch MRI Center at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center's Neurological Institute. The research device permits very high resolution imaging of both structures and functions, in many cases deep within the body.
Using these areas of collaboration as a model, the Center will establish new research and education concentrations in three areas: biomechanics, biomedical imaging, and quantitative physiology and cellular engineering. Plans call for new courses, among others, in musculoskeletal biomechanics, tissue and cellular engineering, and computer control of biomedical instrumentation.
Engineering students at Columbia have had the option of earning advanced degrees in bioengineering since 1962. The major, among the nation's oldest, offers a unique, quantitative background for students preparing medical careers.
Since its inception in 1975, the Whitaker Foundation has given Columbia $2.7 million for research projects, conference support and infrastructure development. The foundation was established on the death of Uncas A. Whitaker, founder of AMP Inc., Harrisburg, Pa., a manufacturer of electrical connectors.