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A Mighty Force

           

 

The Biomedical Engineering Alliance between Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic will bolster relationships already thriving at the two powerhouse institutions.

 

Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic Lerner Research Institute launched an alliance last year to advance research and education in biomedical engineering, but partnerships among researchers at both institutions have been ongoing for years. While it didn’t require a formal agreement among the organizations for great minds to work together, the newly-forged alliance will increase opportunities for collaboration.

“The alliance builds an invisible bridge between the two places,” says James Basilion, a professor of biomedical engineering in Case Western Reserve University’s School of Medicine. “It makes it easier to collaborate, and it makes it feel like you’re working for one entity rather than at different places.” For several years, he co-chaired a biannual meeting on nanomedicine that brought together experts from Case Western Reserve, Cleveland Clinic and around the world. 

“It was a prime example of the cutting-edge nanomedicine efforts at both institutions,” says Basilion. “When we combined forces, we could pull something together that was greater than its parts.”

Nanomedicine is just one field that will benefit from the alliance between nationally renowned biomedical engineering departments at Case Western Reserve University and Lerner Research Institute. Areas of expertise among scientists, physicians and engineers within the alliance range from neural engineering and imaging to biomaterials and regenerative medicine. New projects in those areas, as well as ongoing research, will flourish under the alliance. 

A Boon to Ongoing Research Projects

David Wilson is an expert in minimally-invasive, interventional medical imaging who is vocal about the alliance. “We are creating one of the largest biomedical engineering concerns in the world,” he boasts.

Wilson knows first-hand the benefits of combining forces with researchers within easy walking distance from the Biomedical Imaging Laboratory he leads at Case Western Reserve University. For nearly a year, he has collaborated with Aaron Fleischman, director of the BioMEMS and Nanotech Laboratory at Lerner Research Institute, to develop a new intravascular ultrasound system (IVUS) to allow cardiologists to better understand, diagnose and treat coronary artery disease. They submitted a joint $4 million R01 research grant to the National Institutes of Health soon after the announcement of the alliance.

The partnership is synergistic. “David has experience with image processing through machine learning and image evaluation. I have experience with miniature high-resolution ultrasound that has all the benefits of IVUS and has nearly the resolution of intravascular optical coherence tomography,” says Fleischman. “The strengths of each imaging modality compensates for the weakness of the other.” Equally important to teaming up, adds Fleischman, is Wilson’s “reputation for outstanding collegiality.”

Efstathios (Stathis) Karathanasis, associate chair of the School of Medicine Biomedical Engineering at Case Western Reserve and an associate professor, also understands the need for collegiality. For the past five years or so, he has teamed with researchers at Lerner Research Institute to develop a multi-component drug carrier system based on nanoparticles that delivers potent drugs to brain tumors. His collaboration began with Jeremy Rich, who is now at the University of California San Diego. Rich created stem cell inhibiting agents, while Karathanasis designed a drug delivery system.

“Our overarching approach was to develop an effective drug carrier system that incorporates delivery across the blood-brain barrier, minimal toxicity to the normal brain and consideration of resistant glioma stem cell populations that don’t respond to standard of care, which is chemotherapy and radiation,” says Karathanasis.

Karathanasis has since begun working with Christopher Hubert, a research associate and staff member at Lerner Research Institute who conducted his post-doctoral work in Rich’s lab. Hubert is developing the first glioblastoma (GBM) organoids – 3D cultured tissue structures that contain diverse and interacting tumor cell populations similar to clinical tumors. The researchers hope to use the GBM organoids to test the effectiveness of therapeutics developed by Rich and the drug delivery system made by Karathanasis.

“Stathis and I are both interested in developing therapies that have the maximum chance of success when translated from the laboratory to the clinic, and we are approaching this from two different, yet highly complementary directions,” says Hubert.

Abundant Advantages of the Alliance 

The possibility of teaming on congruent projects is appealing to researchers from both institutions. “Work being done at Cleveland Clinic in biomedical engineering complements some of the work that we are doing on computational imaging and personalized diagnostics,” says Pallavi Tiwari, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering in the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. “It only makes sense that we join forces and work together.” 

In their research, Tiwari and her colleague Satish Viswanath, also an assistant professor of biomedical engineering in the School of Medicine, utilize standard-of-care imaging data to extract information, quantify it and apply it to predictive modeling. One of Tiwari’s primary collaborators at Cleveland Clinic is Jennifer Yu, in the Radiation Oncology Department, with whom she serves as co-principal investigator on a grant from the Dana Foundation. By also teaming with Cleveland Clinic researchers who are developing new targeted imaging technologies, the process of predictive modeling can be further improved.

Enhancing opportunities for clinical translation is another major advantage of the alliance. The university’s Case-Coulter Translational Research Partnership has supported more than 80 technologies, and a third of those projects have been licensed. Cleveland Clinic biomedical engineering researchers are instrumental in the NIH Center for Accelerated Innovation at Cleveland Clinic, one of three nationwide centers created by the NIH to develop best practices in translating academic innovations into new drugs, devices and diagnostics. “Putting people together [from both institutions] who think in different ways may actually speed up translation from basic discovery to the clinic,” says Basilion.

Students also will benefit from the alliance. “They will have more access to faculty members across both institutions, which means more research opportunities, more mentorship possibilities and access to more resources in terms of funding, conferences to attend and experts to consult with,” says Sam Senyo, an assistant professor in Case Western Reserve's Department of Biomedical Engineering whose research focuses on therapeutic cardiac regeneration. 

Fleischman is also excited at the prospect of having access to a larger group of students. “The alliance will make it easier to initiate joint projects and share students to take full advantage of the expanded pool of cutting-edge research and thought that our programs bring together,” he says.

Perhaps the greatest advantage of the alliance is a serendipitous one. “The formal partnership has an informal but powerful side benefit,” says Hubert. “It gets together groups of extremely smart and collaborative scientists who may otherwise have never ended up in the same room together.” He has pursued ongoing conversations and initial collaborative experiments with other Case Western Reserve University biomedical engineering faculty aside from Karathanasis whom he may not have met and worked with prior to the alliance.

“The alliance is building a closer community,” echoes Karathanasis. And that, he says, will impact the most important thing of all – science itself. 

“I want to work with the best talent that can move our science forward,” he says. “It just so happens that Cleveland Clinic has plenty of those.” So does Case Western Reserve University. Together, they are a mighty force in biomedical engineering