Biomedical Engineering Meets Personalized Healthcare at 3rd Annual Future of Engineering Symposium

Keynote speakers Dr. George Savage (left) and Professor Jim Collins engage the audience in a discussion about personalized healthcare.
Keynote speakers Dr. George Savage (left) and Professor Jim Collins engage the audience in a discussion about personalized healthcare.

Two leading experts – one a College of Engineering faculty member, the other an alumnus – discussed the current state and future potential of personalized medicine at the College’s third annual Future of Engineering Symposium on Oct. 29 in the Photonics Center.

Professor James Collins (BME), a leader in the fields of systems and synthetic biology, and George Savage (’81), a medical doctor and chief medical officer of the biotechnology firm Proteus Biomedical, addressed a crowd of approximately 250 students, alumni, faculty at the symposium, titled, “Personalized ‘Intelligent’ Medicine: How Engineering, Technology, Innovation and Public Policy Challenges Will Impact Your Healthcare.”

In his opening remarks to the audience, Dean Kenneth Lutchen noted that “the Future of Engineering Symposium was established in 2008 with the goal of highlighting the societal significance engineering has along a wide range of disciplines. Recent advances in biomedical engineering have had a transformative impact, particularly in designing drugs and therapies for healthcare for the individual.”

Savage opened with a historical perspective. “In the 19th century, medicine was highly personalized, but also ineffective,” he said. “Now, we have swung to the other end of the spectrum, where medicine is highly effective but impersonal.”

As an example of how breakthroughs in biomedical engineering are working to re-personalize healthcare, Savage discussed Proteus’s newest advancement in the field, now being tested – a system of small ingestible event markers that are implanted in a patient’s medications. An inexpensive, disposable monitor worn as a patch on the patient identifies each pill upon swallowing and tracks vital signs to watch for any possible adverse reactions to the drugs. This information is then automatically uploaded to the patient’s mobile phone and transmitted to caregivers and healthcare professionals, allowing for instantaneous and personalized treatment.

Collins discussed up-and-coming technologies such as targeted antibiotics, re-engineered microbiomes, stem cell therapy and drug therapy as ways in which the fields of synthetic and systems biology are influencing personalized medicine. With these collaborations, healthcare professionals are receiving the tools they need to better and more quickly diagnose and treat a person’s individual diseases.

“With these developments,” Collins said, “doctors will be able to filter information through a network of human illnesses to determine a patient’s disease state — how sick he or she is — specifically target that disease and predict exactly what treatments are needed.”

“Personalized healthcare is an extraordinarily important and complex topic that goes beyond just the transformative scientific and technology breakthroughs,” said Lutchen. “The path to achieving the full potential of these technologies involves the impacts of public policy, regulatory issues and economic constraints before this field can gain wide-spread adoption.”