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Bridge between scientists and engineers sets stage for medical technologies and high-tech jobs

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Gov. Terry McAuliffe speaks at the public opening of the VCU Institute for Engineering Medicine and School of Engineering’s expansion at the Virginia Biotechnology Research Park.
Photos by Hillary Kuhn, VCU School of Engineering

Gov. Terry McAuliffe has a message for Virginia institutes of higher education that Virginia Commonwealth University President Michael Rao, Ph.D., hears loud and clear.

“My whole emphasis has been about building the Virginia economy,” McAuliffe said Thursday at the public opening of the VCUInstitute for Engineering Medicine and School of Engineering’s expansion at the Virginia Biotechnology Research Park. “Our institutions of higher education are really what we need … to continue to be a leader in this country. VCU’s been up front, and the work that’s being done here is truly extraordinary. This is just the incubator to bring in jobs from around the globe.”

The Biotech Eight facility is now headquarters for the IEM, which fosters collaborative programs between the VCU Schools of Engineering and Medicine, the College of Humanities and Sciences and Office of the Provost, with a commitment to advancing faculty collaborations for discovery and translational development to address unmet needs in health care. Biotech Eight is also home for initiatives in pharmaceutical engineering, human factors and rehabilitation engineering, and several other key engineering faculty offices and labs.

The IEM is a “bridge between the Monroe Park Campus and the medical campus filled with scientists and engineers who are creating and developing technologies that will make our lives better,” said Barbara D. Boyan, Ph.D., dean of the School of Engineering.

The difficult engineering challenges and solutions faculty, staff and students achieve at the IEM will positively impact the state for generations, Rao said.

VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., speaks.
VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., speaks.

“The VCU Institute of Engineering and Medicine is just what VCU stands for — bringing a wide range of disciplines together,” he said. “Not only with our faculty, but we engage our students as well, being certain that they are thinking about not only how you bring disciplines together, but how do you commercialize great ideas and create the kind of value that actually creates jobs in the long run?”

More than 100 university and community members attended the open house tour of the facility’s laboratories. Laboratories open for tours included the Medicines for All Lab, where Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grant recipient Frank Gupton, Ph.D., and his team are working to develop a more cost-effective way to manufacture Dolutegravir, a new HIV/AIDS therapy.

Tom Roper, Ph.D., is leading the Pharmacy on Demand Lab, where his team is developing new ways to produce medicines in streamlined facilities, reduce infrastructure needs, mitigating production hazard risks and allowing for close-to-need manufacturing in locations worldwide. (See below for a full list of the Biotech Eight labs.)

Biotech Eight will be the headquarters for the joint Schools of Engineering and Pharmacy Ph.D. program in pharmaceutical engineering, which is now under development. The new program will prepare students for careers in the pharmaceutical, biotech and health care industries with a focus on improving discovery technologies, development methods and creating high value jobs in the commonwealth.

The open house was sponsored by the Virginia Biotechnology Research Park, the VCU School of Engineering and the VCU Institute for Engineering Medicine.

The Biotechnology Research Park, a 34-acre life sciences community, houses more than 60 private and nonprofit companies, state and federal laboratories, and research institutes/administrative functions of VCU and the VCU Health System, employing approximately 2,400 researchers, scientists, engineers and support personnel. The park’s location provides easy access from the VCU Health and VCU Monroe Park campuses along with state and city government locations.

“VCU is such a magnet,” said Carrie Roth, president and CEO of the research park. “We’re hoping through the work here at [the VCU Institute for Engineering Medicine] that we will be able to have more private sector spinoff companies.”

 

Chemical and Life Science Engineering Labs

Medicines for All Lab (Frank Gupton, Ph.D., principal investigator)

By increasing access to lifesaving medications, the Medicines for All Lab is working to reduce the impact of HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and other neglected diseases around the world. 

In order to increase this access globally, the Medicines for all Lab aims to decrease the cost of active pharmaceutical ingredients — a major cost driver in treating infectious diseases in the developing world. There is a critical need for novel, cost-saving approaches to API production, but neither innovator drug companies nor generic manufacturers have economic incentives to develop them. Medicines for All responds to this need by identifying manufacturing routes that utilize the lowest-cost raw materials and most efficient tools available.

The initiative’s impact expands well beyond its three target diseases, as the creation of new API manufacturing paradigms that reduce the cost per kilogram of specific drug targets can be applied to other medicines as well. So, while Medicines for All meets an urgent health care need today, it also signals dramatic change in future pharmaceutical manufacturing technologies.

 

Catalysis Lab (Frank Gupton, Ph.D., principal investigator)

A hidden but high-impact science, catalysis is at the heart of the energy, chemical and environmental industries. Approximately one-third of the world’s economy depends directly or indirectly on catalysis. In other words, if catalysis were a country, its economic impact would make it the third largest gross domestic product in the world.

Catalysis is focused on increasing rates of chemical reactions. It is perhaps best known by the public in automobile catalytic converters, but catalysis is also an essential element for the preparation of commodity chemicals, textiles, agricultural products, specialty chemicals and fine chemicals including pharmaceuticals.

Through research that transforms catalyst synthesis from an art to a science, researchers in VCU’s Catalysis Lab are helping to reduce the cost of chemical processes that are used for everything from creating novel medicines to lowering greenhouse gas emissions. As a result, chemical conversions are achieved in the most efficient, economical and environmentally responsible manner.  

 

Pharmaceutical Engineering Lab (Tom Roper, Ph.D., principal investigator)

The VCU School of Engineering’s Pharmaceutical Engineering Lab will partner with experts from the VCU School of Pharmacy to work toward the theme of “Pharmaceutical Engineering: Engineering and Science for Global Health, in the Palm of Your Hand.” The lab is designing drug manufacturing processes that shrink environmental and industrial footprint while expanding access to drugs. Its overarching goals are to bring the production of active pharmaceutical ingredients and drug products closer to the patient, make them more accessible, and fundamentally change manufacturing paradigms. Researchers here are moving manufacturing out of huge buildings and into small laboratories or desktop 3-D printers.

While pharmaceutical manufacturers typically produce batches of drugs in huge factories, the Pharmaceutical Engineering Lab is developing ways to produce medicines in streamlined facilities — the size of one lab or even smaller. This reduces infrastructure needs, mitigates industrial hazard risks and allows for manufacturing in more locations worldwide. Since these next-generation facilities will produce drugs in continuous flow, the medicines they make can be provided at lower cost. The lab also seeks projects that have a direct line of sight to economic benefits in the commonwealth and collaboration potential with other Virginia universities.

 

Biomaterials and Drug Delivery Lab (Hu Yang, Ph.D., principal investigator)

Work in the VCU Biomaterials and Drug Delivery Lab brings together multiple disciplines including engineering, materials science and medicine, with an overall goal of making drugs function better and reach targets more efficiently.

This lab designs and synthesizes novel, biologically active polymers for broad biomedical and pharmaceutical applications including drug/gene delivery, controlled drug release and tissue regeneration. The focus is on the analysis and understanding of the structure-function-property relationship of biomaterials and their context in biology.

Research conducted in the Biomaterials and Drug Delivery lab is applicable to the treatment of various diseases including cancer and glaucoma. Current projects include development of a long-lasting medication formulation that would allow glaucoma patients to reduce dosing frequency and improve drug compliance, as well as designing new biomaterials for use in drug delivery systems. The lab also provides a platform for commercialization of translational research.

 

Also included in this category of labs is the Polymer and Surface Engineering Lab (Ken Wynne, Ph.D., principal investigator).

 

Electrical & Computer Engineering labs

DeCyPS Lab (Carl Elks, Ph.D., principal investigator)

The Dependable Cyber-Physical Systems Lab focuses on the research, design and verification of highly reliable and trustworthy cyber-physical computing systems. The lab is multidisciplinary, comprising faculty and research members whose expertise spans across hardware architectures, dependability and cybersecurity, unmanned autonomous systems, nuclear energy instrumentation and control, micro-electromechanical systems, advanced sensors, embedded medical devices and formal verification methods. The VCU DeCyPS lab has a strong focus on experimental methods and practices, with the goal of developing techniques and methods that can be applied to real-world systems or verified with real data. One of the aims of the lab is to promote a culture of collaboration among partners that include the VCU School of Engineering, commercial enterprises and other academic institutions, so the VCU DeCyPS group collaborates extensively with several industry partners and research institutions.

 

PIRL Lab (Gregory Triplett, Ph.D., principal investigator)

The Precision Imaging Research Laboratory develops novel ways to customize imaging. The PIRL group’s instrumentation and expertise create tools for imaging across spatial, spectral and temporal modalities. These capabilities equip researchers to detect tiny variations in color and motion across moments in time.

PIRL offers researchers a variety of sophisticated instruments including Molecular Beam Epitaxy, a tool that can create photonic devices to generate or detect light. The devices created using MBE offer a novel approach to imaging by using information from multiple areas in order to create a more comprehensive picture overall. PIRL also uses instruments that allow researchers to interrogate devices so small that they are measured at submicron level. Many of the custom-built devices from the PIRL group are particularly relevant to health care applications, including emerging instrumentation systems that will allow researchers to look at various tissue samples in order to determine characteristics such as rigidity. PIRL’s work also has the potential to find applications well beyond imaging, including nanotechnology, particle science and big data analysis.

  

Biomedical Engineering labs

 

Neuromuscular Rehabilitation Lab (Carrie Peterson, Ph.D., principal investigator)

The Neuromuscular Rehabilitation Lab is focused on rehabilitation for people who have suffered a neurological event such as a stroke or spinal cord injury. These events often result in neurological deficits that cause loss of motor or sensory function and can prevent activities as fundamental as walking or swallowing. Researchers in this lab are developing tools to help sufferers of these deficits improve their quality of life.

The Neuromuscular Rehabilitation lab is achieving this goal through advances in neural plasticity, which looks at the capacity to change neural networks in the brain and the spinal cord. Building on the brain and spinal cord’s ability to modify and adapt, these researchers are designing rehabilitation to promote lasting, functional changes that could potentially generate changes in the physical neuroanatomy.

Investigations include pairing stimulation therapy with the physical therapy patients receive after injury, as well as modeling humans at the musculoskeletal level in order to pinpoint and correct neurological deficits that may be hindering function.

 

Speech Recognition Lab (Gerald Miller, Ph.D., principal investigator)

The Speech Recognition Lab works to improve quality of life for people living with dysarthria. Characterized by abnormalities in pitch or irregular speaking patterns, dysarthria is often the result of conditions such as cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy, or events such as stroke and brain injuries. By building tools that improve computer systems’ ability to understand and process distorted vocal commands, the researchers in this lab are expanding patient ability to interact with technology.

Using editing suites first designed for the commercial audio industry, the Speech Recognition Lab can record a dysarthric speech pattern and analyze it on a frequency spectrum. This process allows them to separate out individual words in order to identify deficiencies or irregularities when compared to a typical speech pattern. Using those measurements, they work to create a platform that can take distorted speech and make it recognizable to computer systems. This increases independence for people whose speech is compromised by allowing them to perform searches by voice, use speech-to-text software and interact with common A.I. applications such as Siri, Cortana and Alexa.   

 

Rehabilitation Technology and Haptics Lab (Dianne Pawluk, Ph.D., principal investigator)

The Rehabilitation Technology and Haptics Lab works in several different areas of assistive technology united by a common theme: touch, or “haptics.” While one portion of the lab addresses providing more effective access to tactile graphics and printed information for people who are blind or visually impaired, additional areas of focus pertain to the development of hand prostheses, particularly control algorithms and tactile feedback for dexterous tasks, and basic haptic research. Projects involve hardware and/or software development, as well as user testing, and include the development a simplified haptic system that improves graphics and Braille on a full page, as well as a new method for automating conversion of diagrams and photographs from visual to tactile presentations.

Also part of this group of labs are the Artificial Heart Lab (Gerald Miller, Ph.D., principal investigator) and the Biomedical Instrumentation Lab (Ding Yu Fei, Ph.D., principal investigator).

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