With the establishment of one of the world’s first biomedical engineering departments in 1967, Duke University‘s preeminence at the intersection of medicine and engineering a half-century later could be considered inevitable.
However, even those who foresaw the potential of bringing together the two fields may not have imagined the ways in which MEDx—an initiative launched in 2015 by then School of Medicine Dean Nancy Andrews and Pratt School of Engineering Dean Tom Katsouleas, with support from Provost Sally Kornbluth—is pioneering new methods of interdisciplinary innovation. Designed to deliberately and strategically strengthen the ties between the two schools’ research scientists, engineers, students, and clinicians, MEDx is fundamentally changing the way in which Duke approaches complex challenges.
And by complex, think big, audacious, jaw-dropping challenges. Such as tissue engineering and the development of ‘body-on-a-chip’ – an integrated system of organoids on a chip that mimics tissue, organ, and whole body physiology. This in turn may one day become ‘you-on-a-chip’ – a personalized chip which enables clinicians to test the effects of therapeutic interventions in advance of treatment to identify the path with the greatest likelihood of success.
Duke has long recognized that collaboration is much more than happenstance, and MEDx underscores that belief. MEDx, co-led by Geoffrey S. Ginsburg, MD, PhD, professor of medicine, biomedical engineering, pathology, and nursing, and Ken Gall, PhD, professor of mechanical engineering and materials science, and biomedical engineering, not only encourages students and faculty to dream up and rigorously evaluate ideas in fields as diverse as health informatics, tissue and genetic engineering, brain science, and drug and device innovation, but offers concrete programmatic support—along the full spectrum of the university’s intellectual capital, from undergraduates through tenured faculty—to bring those ideas to life.
Whereas at one time an idea might have been jotted on a napkin but gone no further, today an enterprising student with an idea, but a lack of knowledge about what to do next, can pitch their idea to faculty, who in turn explore possible collaboration opportunities and offer targeted guidance. Or, if a medical or surgical trainee observes an unmet clinical need and decides she wants to tackle it head on, she can apply for a one-year competitive fellowship through a program called InnovateMD. The fellowship brings engineering students together with trainees to explore solutions to the identified need, and provides access to coursework, workshops, advisors, and funding. Upon completion of the program, students have a design or prototype and a business plan to continue developing the proposed solution.
And that’s not all. A School of Medicine student group with more than 130 members, the Medical Engineering Interest Group (MEIG), supported by MEDx, provides access to advisors, innovators, and researchers through lunchtime talks; faculty teams offer colloquia throughout the academic year to encourage ideation and new projects; and nuts-and-bolts workshops are available on a range of topics, such as a recent workshop focused on the fundamentals of start-up law, to assist innovators.
Through a number of different partnerships, MEDx also provides research grants along the spectrum of innovation, from discovery research to patient treatments. The Kaganov Research Initiative in Pulmonary Medicine and Engineering, supported by Carol and Alan Kaganov, is one example of private alumni-driven philanthropy that supports pulmonary research by a team intentionally comprised of both engineering and medicine faculty.
The excitement for this kind of collaboration is palpable as more Duke student and faculty-led innovations with the potential to transform health enter the marketplace. Last November, Duke University School of Medicine Dean Mary Klotman and Dean Bellamkonda traveled to New York City for a Duke Alumni Association event with approximately 140 alumni to discuss innovation and MEDx. And, in February, Dean Klotman, Duke University Chancellor for Health Affairs Eugene Washington, and Vice Chancellor for Health Data Science at Duke Health Robert Califf, will travel to San Francisco to engage Bay Area alumni in a discussion of innovation and big data.
Not surprisingly, Duke alumni are demonstrating that learning how to change the world may start at Duke, but it certainly doesn’t end there.