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A man and a woman look at a medical device.

While many of the U's early pioneering medical devices were centered on cardiology, the scope of the its biomedical engineering research today includes health sciences ranging from dentistry, to orthopedics, to urology.

Left to their own devices

Faculty and students at the U continue to pioneer medical device technology

By Steve Anderson

April 18, 2006

Washington Avenue may be the only thing between the University of Minnesota and further medical device breakthroughs. And that's a good thing.

"People don't recognize the advantage we have here, having the health sciences across the street from engineering," says Art Erdman, a member of the mechanical engineering faculty who conducts extensive biomedical research. "Putting doctors on one side of Washington Avenue together with professors, students, and postdocs on this side to solve problems in health sciences has been a very successful interchange."

Compare this situation to the University of Texas at Austin, where Erdman was asked to be an outside consultant while the university was developing a biomedical engineering design program. "They were excited to report that they were going to purchase a bus and one day a week they would have this bus carry students from Austin to Dallas, where the hospital was," he recalls.

For Erdman, it confirmed what he'd always thought about the U: "These relationships that have been going on for years between engineering and health sciences, and that have led to so many breakthroughs, are a result of proximity."

Breaking ground: then and now The list of medical device engineering "firsts" at the U is impressive: like the oxygenator blood pump (1955) that made open heart surgery a common procedure; the transistorized, battery-powered pacemaker (1957) which replaced AC-powered equipment that was vulnerable to power outages; and the bi-leaflet mechanical heart valve (1977) that revolutionized cardiac treatment and became the industry standard.

Being the world's top university in medical devices is something that's been on Erdman's mind, too: "To have University administration set a goal to be one of the top three public research institutions was music to my ears. To be in the top three, we need a significant number of programs that are number one in the world. This is one where we can do it."

While many of the early pioneering devices were centered on cardiology, the scope of the U's biomedical engineering research includes many of the health sciences, making it a model of interdisciplinary collaboration. Erdman, who started teaching at the U in 1971, has worked in areas ranging from dentistry, to orthopedics, to urology. Currently, he's most excited about projects with the department of ophthalmology.

Shop talk

Medical devices take center stage during a conference hosted by the University of Minnesota on April 19-21. Now in its fifth year, the Design of Medical Devices (DMD) Conference brings together designers, manufacturers, University researchers, public sector representatives, and students to share perspectives on all facets of the industry. Topics include emerging and clinical technologies, business development, and regulation.

What started with 120 attendees its first year has grown to five times that number. This year's organizers expect a crowd of more than 600. Not bad for a conference that was only planned to happen once. "It wasn't an hour into the conference when people were coming up to me, saying, 'When you do this next year...,'" recalls conference chair and mechanical engineering professor Art Erdman of the first DMD in 2001. "We filled a void that no one knew was there."

In addition to two days of technical sessions, DMD features the President's 21st Century Interdisciplinary Conference on Medical Device Policy and Planning. This year, University and industry leaders address the topic "Medical Devices for Delivering the New Biology."

In 2001, he and retinal surgeon Tim Olsen set out to improve retinal surgery procedures and to develop new strategies for studying macular degeneration, an eye disease that damages the macula (a small region of the central retina) and eventually leads to blindness. The disease affects millions of Americans and can be slowed through therapies and drugs, but is so far incurable.

Erdman and Olsen enlisted the help of Ph.D. student Paul Loftness and, five years later, one result is a new instrument that will revolutionize a procedure that's been in place since the early 1900s, according to Loftness. The "scleral depressor" is an automated device that will allow surgeons to see more of the retina during operations, replacing a method that requires an assistant to press against the sclera (the outer membrane of the eye) to move the peripheral retina into the surgeon's viewing area with a crude, pen-like instrument.

"It will make eye surgery safer by giving the surgeon very fine control over a delicate process," says Loftness. The University is now seeking a patent for the scleral depressor.

The team's work on macular degeneration is in an earlier stage, with the focus on understanding the tissues affected by the disease. But Loftness hopes that preliminary studies will lead to approaches for treating what has become the leading cause of age-related blindness for people over 60. "For those of us working on this, it's more than just a job. It's really a passion," he says.

Newly funded fellowships Talented and determined graduate students such as Loftness play a key role in keeping the U among the academic leaders in biomedical engineering. The U's ability to attract the best talent got a boost recently thanks to two corporate gifts. Boston Scientific and the Medtronic Foundation and Medtronic Inc. have both offered $500,000 to fund endowed graduate fellowships for incoming students, which will be matched by the University's 21st Century Graduate Fellowship Endowment Fund.

According to Bob Tranquillo, head of the department of biomedical engineering (which administers the biomedical engineering graduate program and raised these gifts), endowed graduate fellowships will allow the U to compete with other institutions that offer fellowships. "They will give students time to identify a project and adviser that best meets their interests," he says. Similar fellowships were previously funded by a grant from the Whitaker Foundation, which ended this year, so the Boston Scientific and Medtronic gifts are extremely timely-and hopefully, says Tranquillo, the beginning of a series of corporate gifts.

Toward the world's best Once the students settle into the program, they receive some of the most comprehensive training available. A new product design and business development course encapsulates the U's cross-discipline approach: an industry partner such as Medtronic or Boston Scientific brings an idea for a new product to the class, which spends an entire year developing a working prototype, business plan, patent application, and transition strategy.

"Past students think it's one of the best courses they had at the U relative to what they see in their jobs," says Paul Iaizzo, a department of surgery faculty member who teaches applied physiology to biomedical engineering students, and one of the course's architects. "It's innovations like this that the U needs to continue to be a world leader as a medical device training facility."

Being the world's top university in medical devices is something that's been on Erdman's mind, too: "To have University administration set a goal to be one of the top three public research institutions was music to my ears. To be in the top three, we need a significant number of programs that are number one in the world. This is one where we can do it."

The U's rich history, physical proximity of the medical and engineering departments, location in the Twin Cities (an international biotech center where industry leaders Medtronic, Boston Scientific, Guidant, and St. Jude Medical have headquarters or operating facilities), and top faculty and facilities all make the vision seem possible. Fellowship funding such as the recent corporate gifts means student talent will get even stronger.

But eventually, it still comes down to crossing Washington Avenue. "The fact that we have a well-oiled system in place of faculty and students in engineering working with our medical counterparts across the street makes it possible to roll up our sleeves and get to work...," says Erdman.