By Kathrin Havrilla
College of Engineering’s Class of 2014 was reminded of the impact a Societal Engineer can make in improving society’s quality of life at convocation ceremonies on Saturday, May 17.
Dean Kenneth R. Lutchen led the way for the 336 undergraduates being recognized with a quote from the popular movie “A League of Their Own,” congratulating graduates for attaining what he contended was one of the most difficult degrees to earn from BU, with the classic speech “’If it wasn’t hard, anyone could do it. The hard is what makes it great. Anyone can’t do it. YOU can.’ Well done.”
The Dean went on to add “What you’ve done by getting an education at Boston University is really understand the extraordinary importance of learning how to create, design and interact with other disciplines and understand how to move organizations forward by integrating with a complex social economic system.”
Student speaker Shana Blumenthal (ME’14, Aero) will soon be working at Pratt and Whitney as part of a two-year rotational Manufacturing Engineering Development Program. As she said to her fellow graduates, “Great engineering feats of the past century were not developed by those who solved the easy problems, but by those risk-takers who attempted the impossible. It is our time to find solutions for new challenges. It is our responsibility to seek out opportunities to allow us to grow and develop.”
The commencement speaker Kevin Kit Parker (ENG’89) is now Tarr Family Professor of Bioengineering and Applied Physics at Harvard University, and led a research team that in 2011 upended the conventional wisdom about the cause of traumatic brain injury. Parker spoke consistently of strength and perseverance, mentioning his time as a U.S. Army paratrooper when he completed two tours of duty in Afghanistan. “I’m a BU-trained Societal Engineer. And my job isn’t always technical, but it always involves solving problems … Do not be afraid of the cutting edge.”
Dean Lutchen also gave out the Department Awards for Teaching Excellence, which went to Michael Smith (BME), Ajay Joshi (ECE) and William Hauser (ME). Outstanding Professor of the Year went to James J. Collins (BME, MSE, SE), and the Faculty Service Award went to Elise Morgan (ME, BME). He also noted that Stormy Attaway (GRS’84,’88) would receive the Metcalf Cup and Prize, the University’s highest teaching honor, at the University commencement ceremony the following day.
Later Solomon Eisenberg, Senior Associate Dean for Academic Programs and Chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, gave out a multitude of student awards: the Earle & Mildred Bailey Memorial Award for Scholarship and Service to the College to Nichole Black and Harvin Vallabhanemi; the Ging S. Lee Community Service Award for Outstanding Community Service to Habib Mohammed Khan; and the Anita Cuadrado Memorial Awards for Enthusiasm and Devotion to the College to Samantha Chan. The prestigious Outstanding Senior Project Awards were also given out to Sarah Clark and Jeremy Rosenthal (both BME) for “SGRS RNA Visualization in Live Bacteria Cells Using Fluorescent Protein Complementation;” to Vincent DeGenova, Stuart Minshull, Nandheesh Prasad, Austen Schmidt and Charles Vincent (all ECE) for “AutoScan;” and to William Gullotta, Coleton Kirchner and Aaron Yuengert (all ME) for “Resettable Landing Gear for Mars Hopper.”
And finally, the Societal Impact Capstone Project Awards were given to Yash Adhikari, Angela Lai, Timothy Mon and Leslie Nordstrom (all BME) in first place; to Ian Choen and Zachary Herbert (both ME) in second place; and Elving Cako, Anne DuBois, Benjamin Nichols, Evan Praetorius and Heather Towey (all ECE) in third place.
Later in the day, Girish Navani (MFG), CEO and Co-founder of eClinicalWorks, a leader in ambulatory healthcare IT solutions, delivered the speech at the master’s and PhD ceremony in which 86 master’s students, 150 MEng students and 53 PhD students were recognized for successfully completing the requirements for graduating. Navani was named a 2010 Mass High Tech All-Stars honoree and received the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year® 2009 Award in the Healthcare Technology category in New England, and was also chosen for the Boston Business Journal’s 2006 40 Under 40 list of entrepreneurs and innovators.
He commended the graduate students on their success, saying that “milestones like the one you are experiencing right now remind us of the paths we have taken, and present us with a road for the future. Today is full of promise; full of opportunity for what lies ahead.”
By Rich Barlow
Nature gave Stormy Attaway (GRS’84,’88) an intellect capable of grasping complex concepts. She wrote a textbook about a sophisticated programming language called MATLAB used in research labs, and she has worked to develop online education through BU’s Digital Learning Initiative.
Yet the College of Engineering assistant professor of mechanical engineering admits that one simple mathematical conceit has always stumped her: the bell curve.
“I have never understood why anyone in the education profession would create a system in which students are destined to fail,” she wrote in a statement of her teaching philosophy, adding her wish that all of her students could master all class material and thereby earn As (and, it goes without saying, abolishing the bell curve). That concern for students isn’t just wishful thinking on her part: when the ENG curriculum couldn’t accommodate a course in a vital programming language, she offered students free Saturday tutorials, which have become half-credit, supervised research courses.
Attaway (real name Dorothy—her parents nicknamed their newborn Stormy for her frequent bawling) is this year’s winner of the Metcalf Cup and Prize, the University’s highest teaching honor. Her drive to help ENG students thrive is a big reason why: the theory of evolution is no theory to Attaway, whose deliberately evolving teaching style incorporates new approaches to better reach students.
By evolving, Attaway doesn’t mean merely accommodating new technologies, but also experimenting with alternatives to traditional classroom lectures. “One of my main concerns is evidence-based teaching,” she says, “trying things in a systematic way to find out what works and what doesn’t.”
For example, she has shifted in recent years to brief talks of no more than 10 minutes, followed by practice problems that students tackle in teams for a more active learning approach. Last fall, she abolished lectures outright in one of her classes. Instead, students in that section received lecture slides online before class and devoted in-class time to problem-solving. “It wasn’t entirely successful,” she says, as many students weren’t adequately prepared before class.
This semester, she modified the approach, putting lecture videos online, complete with embedded quiz questions. “Students needed to bring the answers to class, which meant they had to watch the lecture videos. This has been much more successful,” Attaway says. Dispensing with traditional lectures makes it easier to assess how she’s doing as a teacher, since “I can walk around the room and engage the students one-on-one.”
She was “dumbfounded,” she says, when President Robert A. Brown and Provost Jean Morrison invited her to the president’s office to inform her about receiving the Metcalf Cup and Prize. “It has been very motivational to me. I feel more urgently than ever the need to help students learn basic coding concepts.”
“I can think of no one who has touched more BU engineering students during the last 30 years,” one colleague wrote to the Metcalf selection committee. An unsolicited note to Attaway from a former student raved, “Your class was the first programming class of my life. After the first few lectures, I was hooked. It wasn’t just the material I liked, but the presentation was unsurpassed by any subsequent class I took in my college career.…There are countless numbers of other students just like me whose life you’ve transformed.”
Attaway, who has taught at BU since 1986, has been instrumental in ENG’s administrative life as well. She is director of curricular assessment and improvement, she works with colleagues to improve instruction, and she uses upper class undergraduates in her courses as learning assistants, training them to lead groups in this team-dependent discipline.
“The result,” reads her Metcalf citation, “has been generations of students, fellow faculty, and future teachers across disciplines forever fascinated by the teaching and study of engineering.”
A gift from the late Arthur G. B. Metcalf (SED’35, Hon.’74), a BU Board of Trustees chair emeritus and former professor, funds the Metcalf awards, created in 1973 and presented at Commencement. The Metcalf Cup and Prize winner receives $10,000 and the Metcalf Award winners receive $5,000 each. A University committee selects winners based on statements of nominees’ teaching philosophy, supporting letters from colleagues and students, and classroom observations of the nominees.
Terry Everson, a College of Fine Arts associate professor of music, and Alan Marscher, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of astronomy, are the recipients of this year’s Metcalf Awards.
More information about Commencement can be found at the Commencementwebsite.
By Mark Dwortzan
Downtyme, an app that makes it easier for college students and other overscheduled people to get together offline, won the $2,500 first prize at the College of Engineering’s third annual Imagineering Competition.
Held April 17-18 at Ingalls Engineering Resource Center, the competition fielded entries from nine undergraduate engineering students or student teams that applied their creativity and entrepreneurial skills to build working prototypes of technologies aimed at improving the quality of life. Developed in the Singh Imagineering Lab and other on-campus facilities, this year’s projects ranged from a lab-crafted electric guitar to a stairway safety monitor for senior citizens.
Competitors described, demonstrated and defended their work before a panel of four judges—Associate Dean for Administration Richard Lally; Associate Dean for Educational Initiatives/Professor Thomas Little (ECE, SE); Jonathan Rosen, the College of Engineering’s director of Innovation Programs; and Associate Professor Daniel Cole (ME). The judges assessed each project for originality, ingenuity and creativity; quality of design and prototype; functionality; and potential to positively impact society.
From Facebook to Face-to-Face
Scoring high marks in all four categories, Downtyme enables Facebook friends with free time to find each other by uploading their calendars, selecting one friend or group of friends who are free and close by during a specified window of time, and inviting them to share a meal, study, play basketball, hang out, and more. Incorporating more than 25,000 lines of code, the app displays friends on your screen in order of proximity and closeness of their relationship to you.
“We think there’s a discrepancy between the time people spend on social media and the time they’d like to spend interacting in the real world,” said Luke Sorenson (CE/EE’16), who developed Downtyme in the past four months with teammates John Moore (CE’16), Timothy Chong (BME/CE’16) and Barron Roth (CE’16).
“Our solution was to make a smartphone app that saves you from your smartphone,” added Moore. “Our idea is that you take out your phone, go to the App Store, and 30 seconds later you make plans with your friends.”
After the team launched a startup (Downtyme LLC) and rolled out a Beta version of the app for iPhones and Android mobile devices this spring, more than 1,200 users (mostly college students in Greater Boston) downloaded it and are now putting it to the test. The team plans to market the app to college students around the country, companies seeking to coordinate meetings, and other users looking for a convenient way to transact face-to-face connections.
“The Downtyme mobile app shows a highly developed awareness of how important personal contact is in an increasingly digital world,” said Jonathan Rosen. ”All three winning projects show how our students are becoming Societal Engineers as they apply their engineering skills, creativity and entrepreneurship to improve the quality of life.”
Better Robots and Lab Experiments
The second prize winner, Konstantinos Oikonomopoulos (ME’14), received $1,500 for his project, “Hexapteron – A Six Degree of Freedom, Parallel, Semi-Decoupled Robotic Manipulator.” Oikonomopoulos shared first prize last year for his automatic transmission-equipped “Smart Bike” and won second prize in the first Imagineering Competition for his highly-accurate, affordable, easy-to-assemble desktop 3D printer.
The Hexapteron can both translate and rotate objects about the x, y and z axes with three sets of software-controlled, carbon-fiber arms that move in parallel. It’s a next-generation, six-degrees-of-freedom manipulator with a unique design and properties that make it suitable for a wide range of applications, including affordable, desktop 3D printing on curved surfaces, multi-axis machining and multi-axis robotic assembly.
“The Hexapteron has never been built before,” said Oikonomopoulos, who took only a month to make the prototype, which occupies a workspace of 20 cubic centimeters and costs about $1,000. “I think this kind of device will one day replace many industrial robots.”
Adrian Tanner (ME’15) and Rhonda Silva (BME’15) won the $1,000 third place prize for their entry, “LickDat,” a device that monitors how frequently a laboratory mouse sucks on a water bottle containing a sweet, addictive, liquid food sample. Consisting of an Arduino (an open source electronics prototyping platform), LCD screen and liquid dispenser suitable for small rodents, the device was designed to support studies conducted by the Boston University Medical School Laboratory of Addiction Genetics on addictive behaviors towards food including obesity and compulsive eating disorders.
Whereas conventional lab equipment costs more than $300 and runs current through the mouse to detect each lick of the water bottle, LickDat costs less than $100 and uses capacitance sensors—a common technology in touchscreen surfaces—to detect licks.
Other entries included an automated diagnostic platform that communicates results via a smartphone app; a “Smart Mat” that adjusts heating, cooling, and lighting levels when someone steps into a room; a solar powered Stirling Engine designed to power cell phones and other low-energy devices; and an “Electronic Personal Trainer” that provides feedback to improve weightlifting performance.
Sponsored by John Maccarone (ENG’66), the competition was designed to reinforce the ideal of creating the Societal Engineer by spotlighting student efforts to design, build and test new technologies that promise to positively impact society.
Imagineering Lab programming is supported by the Kern Family Foundation and alumni contributions to the ENG Annual Fund.
Finding Could Open Up New Drug Discovery Opportunities
By Mark Dwortzan
Over the past six years, an interdisciplinary team of College of Engineering faculty members—Professor Sandor Vajda (BME, SE), Research Assistant Professor Dima Kozakov (BME), Professor Yannis Paschalidis (ECE, SE) and Associate Professor Pirooz Vakili (ME, SE)—have been developing a set of powerful optimization algorithms for predicting the structures of complexes that form when two proteins bind together—structures that, in some cases, generate erroneous cell signaling pathways that can trigger cancer and other inflammatory diseases.
Incorporated into Vajda’s and Kozakov’s protein-protein docking server ClusPro—a website to which any user can submit the three-dimensional coordinates of two proteins and receive a supercomputer-calculated prediction of the structure of the complex formed by those proteins—these algorithms have enabled more than 3,000 research groups across the globe to better understand the inner-workings of the cell and explore potential drug targets without having to run expensive, time-consuming lab experiments.
Now the research team behind these algorithms has, through lab experiments and computational analysis, obtained a sharper understanding of how two proteins come together to form a complex, and plans to apply that knowledge to boost the speed and accuracy of ClusPro’s predictions. They and collaborators from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) report on this new development in a new article in eLife, an open source journal for outstanding biomedical research.
A joint effort of Boston University’s Center for Information and Systems Engineering and Biomolecular Engineering Research Center supported by a five-year, $1.6 million grant from the NIH, the project combines Paschalidis’ and Vakili’s expertise in optimization and systems theory with Vajda and Kozakov’s knowledge of biophysics and bioinformatics.
“The research was a beautiful combination of physics with mathematics,” said Paschalidis. “We leveraged techniques popular in control systems developed to describe movement of complex 3-D objects, such as a robot arm, as well as machine learning methods used to analyze large data sets.”
“Preventing proteins from binding to the wrong partners is an increasingly prominent concept in drug design,” said Janna Wehrle, PhD, of the NIH National Institute of General Medical Sciences, which partially funded the research. “These new computational methods developed by the Boston University team will help researchers quickly discover both healthy protein pairs and disease-causing pairs that we might want to break up.”
Until now, scientists were unable to characterize how protein-protein complexes form from two individual proteins—each analogous to a distinctly-shaped Lego block—because their interactions from the moment they come in contact to the moment they “snap into place” were too fast to detect. But an emerging nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) technique has made it possible to track their rapidly changing configurations from rendezvous to docking using radio waves.
Applying this technique, the College of Engineering team determined that its protein-protein docking algorithms were already generating these exact transitional states, but labelling them as “false positives” alongside the correctly identified final protein-protein complex.
“What we have so far been calling false positives are ‘transient encounter complexes,’ temporary structures the proteins form as they ‘search’ for the one orientation that will enable them to bind successfully,” said Paschalidis.
All protein-protein encounter complexes are characterized by low energy, with the lowest energy expected to occur at the final, stable complex. By systematically analyzing the energy values corresponding to the transient complexes, the researchers found that with each successive interaction, the intersecting proteins have fewer and fewer ways to twist and turn, thereby accelerating their path to binding. This explains how two proteins can dock very quickly despite the many nooks and crannies that must line up to seal the deal.
The College of Engineering team next aims to exploit its findings to make its docking algorithms faster and more accurate. The researchers also plan to examine the implications of their work for protein-DNA and protein-small molecule interactions that are important in genetic regulation and drug discovery, respectively.
See movie of transient protein-protein encounter complexes.
By Mark Dwortzan
Associate Professor Catherine Klapperich (BME, MSE) was selected as the inaugural holder of the Dorf-Ebner Distinguished Faculty Fellow award, which honors a mid-career College of Engineering faculty member who has demonstrated exceptional performance and impact in research, teaching and service to the College, and is on track to become an outstanding senior leader in his or her field. Issued once every five years, the award provides each recipient with $100,000 in funding over a five-year period for discretionary initiatives in research and/or education.
The Dorf-Ebner Distinguished Faculty Fellow award is made possible by the generous philanthropy of Roger Dorf (MS, MFG’70), who serves on the College of Engineering’s Leadership Advisory Board. The award was named in memory of Professor Merrill Ebner (MFG), Dorf’s mentor and pioneer of the field of manufacturing engineering, who established the College of Engineering as a leader in the US in the late 1960s.
Klapperich was chosen from a highly competitive slate of nominees in a rigorous selection process.
“I am extremely grateful for this recognition, and especially pleased that the fellowship is in honor of Dr. Merrill Ebner, one of my first mentors at Boston University,” said Klapperich. “Merrill made me feel like a member of the College of Engineering community from day one, and I have fond memories of our talks.”
Klapperich, the director of the NIH Center for Future Technologies in Cancer Care at BU, develops robust, inexpensive, handheld, microfluidic plastic chips and devices that extract nucleic acids from complex human samples—technologies that could enable rapid, point-of-care diagnostics for infectious diseases and cancer without the need for electricity or refrigeration. These minimally instrumented systems could be a major step forward in facilitating the use of molecular diagnostics in developing countries. Klapperich is also working on the design and deployment of devices to more efficiently apply systems biology techniques to improve understanding of TB and other complex diseases.
A recently elected Fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering and Kern Innovation Faculty Fellow, Klapperich directs the Laboratory for Diagnostics and Global Healthcare Technologies and is a member of the Center for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology. Widely published in peer-reviewed journals, her work has garnered more than 1,100 citations in research literature. She serves on the editorial board of Biomedical Microdevices and is an active participant in both national and international research conferences. In 2010, she was an invited participant in the National Academies of Engineering Frontiers of Engineering conference. A member of the College of Engineering faculty since 2003, she earned her PhD in Mechanical Engineering in 2000 from the University of California, Berkeley.
Klapperich is also a widely sought-after educator and mentor who has created and taught in some of the most popular design and manufacture courses at the College. She recently took over the BME Senior Project course with resounding success.
“Cathie is a wonderful first choice for this award,” said Dorf. “Her academic credentials and accomplishments speak for themselves, but what makes her selection really special is that she and I were both mentored by Merrill Ebner.”
Chair of the ENG Campaign Steering Committee, and co-chair of the BU Texas Regional Campaign Committee, Dorf is a recipient of both the ENG and BU Distinguished Alumni Awards. He served for more than 40 years in executive and engineering leadership before retiring from his position as vice president of Cisco Systems in 2009. He previously served as president and CEO of Navini Networks, and in leadership positions at Celite Systems, Nortel Network, Synch Research, AT&T, Cullinet Software and IBM.
Based in Dallas, Texas, Dorf is active in several organizations including the Community Foundation of the Gunnison Valley in Gunnison, Colorado, the US Chamber of Commerce, and Missouri University of Science & Technology.
By Mark Dwortzan
Assistant professors James C. Bird (ME, MSE), Ahmad (“Mo”) Khalil (BME) and Mac Schwager (ME, SE) have each received the National Science Foundation’s prestigious Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award in recognition of their outstanding research and teaching capabilities. Collectively, they will receive more than $1.5 million over the next five years to pursue high-impact projects that combine research and educational objectives.
Bird intends to apply his CAREER award to explore how submicron aerosol droplets are formed from small bursting bubbles. Using direct, high-speed observations, numerical simulations and experimental models, he will seek out the primary mechanism behind this phenomenon. Because these droplets can persist in the atmosphere for weeks, pinpointing this mechanism is important in engineering applications ranging from turbine corrosion to the dispersion of respiratory diseases.
Bird’s research may also improve models used to predict the progression of global climate change.
“On a global scale, a better understanding of aerosol production is necessary to reduce uncertainty in global climate models,” said Bird, “and will allow policy makers to better assess the risks and rewards of geoengineering mitigation strategies, such as deliberately injecting large amounts of sulfur particulates into the atmosphere in hopes of countering the warming effects of greenhouse gases.”
Khalil will use his CAREER award to better understand the mechanisms underlying how organisms adapt to changing environments, a classic problem in evolutionary biology. The goal of his project will be to test a theory that prions—proteins that can switch between multiple conformational states or shapes—equip microbes with an enhanced capability to survive under fluctuating environmental
conditions. Khalil will develop microfluidic systems to study prion behavior and synthetic biology methods to optimize their adaptive properties.
“This work will have broad implications for our basic understanding of evolution, development and cellular systems,” said Khalil. “The project will also shed light on the diverse roles of prions, unique elements that are emerging to be common in the microbial world, and have a transformative impact on synthetic biology, enabling new schemes for rationally engineering a wide array of cellular functions.”
Khalil also aims to inspire and train students to explore how engineering approaches can be applied to better understand how life works, through a “systems & synthetic biology boot camp” for high school students, related high school design challenges to be facilitated by College of Engineering Inspiration Ambassadors, undergraduate research opportunities through the International Genetically Engineered Machine (IGEM) synthetic biology competition, a new integrated course on quantitative systems biology, and other educational activities.
Schwager’s CAREER award will support his efforts to develop algorithms enabling groups of robots to control harmful ecological phenomena such as forest fires, oil spills and agricultural pest infestations. Schwager’s research aims to use a group of robots not only to sense an environment (a passive operation typical of most of today’s research on multi-robot coordination), but also to control the evolution of processes in the environment. He plans to demonstrate the viability of his control strategies through laboratory and outdoor experiments with a network of quadrotor aerial robots.
“Ultimately, the project seeks to alleviate the economic, societal and ecological damage caused by destructive environmental phenomena by laying the foundations of a new robotic technology,” said Schwager.
He also plans to bring quadrotor robots into the classroom to illustrate the principles of feedback control by partnering with the Technology Innovation Scholars Program (TISP). The goal is to engage students from diverse backgrounds at all grade levels and to stimulate their interest in robotic solutions to environmental stewardship.
To date, 37 College of Engineering faculty members have received NSF CAREER awards during their service to the College.
By Michael G Seele
The College of Engineering is expanding its suite of master’s degree programs to give students more flexibility in choosing a program best suited to their career aspirations. Anticipated to be fully in place for the fall 2014 semester, these programs emphasize advanced technical coursework and include an individual or team-based practicum design project. Students will be able to choose among Master of Science and Master of Engineering programs.
“We’ve added new dimensions to our master’s degree programs that speak to the career paths of prospective graduate students,” said College of Engineering Dean Kenneth R. Lutchen. “Whether students want a strictly technical program, one that includes some leadership training or one that prepares them for doctoral work, all options will be available to them.”
All Master of Science programs emphasize advanced technical coursework and include an individual or team-based practicum design project, as well as a range of opportunities to gain practical experience, including company or research internships. MS programs are available in Computer, Electrical, Mechanical, Manufacturing, Systems and Photonics engineering. Programs in Biomedical and Materials Science & Engineering are expected to be available in the fall.
Master of Engineering programs include advanced technical coursework, as well as the option to take elective courses in Project Management and Product Design, some of which are offerred in the School of Management. The programs—offered in Biomedical, Computer, Electrical, Manufacturing, Mechanical, Systems, Photonics, and Materials Science & Engineering—also include a practicum requirement.
All programs can be completed in one or two years. The application deadline for the fall 2014 semester is March 15.
By Chris Berdik, Research at BU 2013
In the battle against cancer, the collateral damage can be devastating. Chemotherapy is one of the biggest weapons in the anticancer arsenal, but while the treatment kills tumors, it can poison healthy tissue, too.
According to the American Cancer Society, more than 580,000 Americans are expected to die from cancer in 2013. Over the same period, about 1.6 million people will be newly diagnosed with the disease. For the majority, their treatment will include multiple injections of one or more chemotherapy drugs. Chemo’s familiar side effects are bad enough: nausea, diarrhea, fatigue, and hair loss. But there can be more severe effects, too, including nerve damage, a crippled immune system, heart toxicity, and kidney failure.
“It’s a race. You want to kill off the cancer before doing too much damage to the healthy cells,” says Tyrone Porter (ME, BME, MSE) at Boston University’s College of Engineering.
Supported by several grants, including a four-year, $1.8 million award from the National Institutes of Health, Porter wants to ensure that a patient’s healthy tissue wins that race. His lab designs tiny particles—twenty times smaller than red blood cells—that can carry chemotherapy directly into tumors to deliver their drug payload.
Porter founded the Nanomedicine and Medical Acoustics Laboratory in 2006 to focus on engineering precisely targeted chemotherapy, as well as to devise nanomedicine therapies for other killer diseases, such as heart disease. His clinical collaborators include David Seldin, chief of hematology-oncology at Boston University Medical Center and a professor of medicine at the School of Medicine, and Nathan McDannold, research director of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School. They’ve successfully tested nanodrug delivery in tissue-mimicking hydrogels, cultured cells, and animal models. We recently sat down with Porter to discuss the big promise of small medicine.
What led you to cancer research?
TYRONE PORTER: When I was in high school, one of my parents’ dear friends succumbed to throat cancer. She was in her forties, and we watched her endure the common effects and toxicities of chemotherapy, along with other treatment options. None of it worked. It was the first time I’d seen my parents deal with the death of somebody who was really close to them.
I saw the impact of the disease on people’s lives, the pain and the grief, and I started to think about how could I get involved in improving cancer treatment. When I finally had the chance to lead my own lab, that was one of the things that had always been in the back of my mind. There’s got to be a much more effective way of treating cancer patients.
How can nanotechnology help?
PORTER: As cancer grows, it needs to stimulate an increase in new blood vessel growth, and it has to be rapid, because these cells are growing much faster than normal cells. As a result, the blood vessels don’t grow the same way that they would grow in healthy tissue. They don’t seal properly. There are little defects and openings along the walls, and submicron particles can penetrate those defects. So we’re designing nanoscale particles to take full advantage of those defects in the vasculature of cancer.
We are designing drug-loaded nanoscale particles that accumulate in the tumors over time, and then degrade slowly, or in response to a stimulus, and release their chemo drug directly into the tumor. It’s very comparable to cold medicine with a 24-hour slow-release capsule to get relief from your symptoms for a full day. They put the cold medicine into a larger capsule that stomach acids break down slowly. It’s a similar idea.
How do you make these tiny particles?
PORTER: We make different types, but they all pretty much go through the same process. We will either use polymers—a sort of plastic—or we use biological material called phospholipids, which are a main component of cells.
We have to dissolve these materials in solutions that don’t mix very well, so we agitate them mechanically. It’s almost like a salad dressing of oil, water, vinegar, and some seasonings. If you don’t shake it up, you’re going to get separation. But if you shake it up and everything disperses, you get little droplets of oil separating from the vinegar, because they don’t mix well.
It’s a very similar process. If you shake up these polymers, or the phospholipids, they naturally form tiny particles. The trick is to shake them appropriately, so the submicron particles will form. Then we just have to coat them so they don’t fuse and form larger particles.
Once these particles accumulate in a tumor, what triggers the drug release?
PORTER: My lab has gone through sort of an evolutionary process on how to do this. You can design these carriers to release their drug in response to a variety of different stimuli. We were initially looking at designing temperature-sensitive particles that become leaky when you raise the temperature locally.
How do you heat a tumor?
PORTER: We used ultrasound. While most people think about ultrasound as a diagnostic tool—to get an image of a developing fetus in the womb, for instance—I’m talking about a more high-powered ultrasound used for therapeutic applications. It’s a focused beam that, with millimeter precision, can actually heat tissue by a few degrees, up to tens of degrees.
When the temperature of the tumor is heated by three and four degrees above the body temperature, it triggers drug release on the spot. It’s like on-demand, on-the-spot chemo infusion. That was the original idea.
Did it work?
PORTER: Yes, it works. We can apply ultrasound to heat where and when we want to and trigger drug release in tens of minutes. So we accomplished on-the-spot and on-demand drug infusion, and the tumors shrank. But the approach is limited to local triggering of drug release, and many cancer patients actually succumb to metastatic cancer. The cancer spreads everywhere, and you’d have to pinpoint all these targets for ultrasound heating. It isn’t ideal.
What did you try next?
PORTER: Well, these particles can be biodegradable, so they just degrade over time and naturally fall apart. Or there are enzymes that the cancers release to help break down the micro-environment around them so they can invade neighboring tissue. We can take advantage of those enzymes to degrade these nanoparticles as well.
But we’ve also tried to target the particles so they’re internalized by the cancer cells and wrapped into their vesicles. When that happens, the cells try to identify the particle, and if it’s foreign to them, they try to break it down with acid. The particles we’re designing respond to that and release their drug inside the cells. So, we’ve moved from an extracellular chemo drug release via an externally applied trigger to an extracellular release using the enzymes that the cancer cells produce to an internalization of the targeted particle and drug release through acidification.
How do you know when enough of these particles have made their way in a tumor?
PORTER: We started labeling them by incorporating a Magnetic Resonance [MR] contrast material, because magnetic resonance imaging is available in most hospitals.
How long does the process usually take?
PORTER: It takes about two hours to see a plateau in the intensity of the MR contrast material in the cancer, and so we think we saturate the cancer in a couple of hours. These particles can remain stable for a few more hours, and then the body clears them out. So, there’s a window of between two and eight hours, and that’s the sweet spot.
The idea of nanomedicine has been around for a few decades, but there aren’t that many nanoparticle drug delivery systems on the market. The biggest barriers have been achieving a stable particle and getting the time-release right. If you just put these particles in water, they’re very stable. But once you put them in blood plasma, there are a lot of proteins floating around that can absorb the particles and raise a red flag to the immune system.
We want to have a particle stable for at least a couple of hours and then trigger drug release before the immune system recognizes it, or get these particles incorporated into the cells, where they’ll stay. But making a particle that will only release its drugs between two and eight hours, that’s a very difficult window to hit. That’s been the demise of many, many particles over the years, and we’ve had to deal with that in my lab.
How do you decide between biological or polymer-based particles?
PORTER: I experiment with reverse engineering. So, based on what stimuli I want to take advantage of, my group and I think of what kind of material we can engineer, design, and fabricate.
I see what type of drug-release triggers I can apply based on where the cancer is in the body. If it’s melanoma, for instance, or something more superficial, then I can easily apply heat to that. And I can make phospholipids so they go through a melting process where they are a gel-like material at normal physiological temperatures, but when heated, they become much more fluid and leaky.
The other types, the plastic-type materials, have linkages within their structure. We can take advantage of acids present in the intercellular vesicles that attack and break down those linkages, so the particle falls apart and the drug is released.
What are your current challenges?
PORTER: We use a range of chemotherapy drugs and we’re now experimenting with loading two different types of drugs into the same particle. If you’re a cancer patient, you’re usually not just receiving one chemo drug. It’s usually a cocktail of two to four different drugs, depending on the type of cancer.
Aside from chemo, I mentioned ultrasound that can heat tissue a few degrees or tens of degrees. Well, if you heat tens of degrees, then you’re destroying cells. We can use ultrasound heating to destroy cancer that isn’t responsive to other treatments. The concept has been around for decades, but it hasn’t been used because of a few limitations to the approach: it can take three to five hours to treat a patient, and the heating process must be monitored to prevent burning the skin or damaging healthy tissue.
Nathan McDannold and I have been using nanoparticles of liquid perfluorocarbon, which is already approved as an ultrasound contrast agent, so these droplets can collect in tumors and be vaporized with heat in gas bubbles that boost tissue absorption. The result is that you dramatically cut the energy needed, reducing the risk of burns, and you accelerate heating. We’ve reduced the time for killing a tumor by 50 percent.
What about your research on diseases besides cancer?
PORTER: Our lab also works on gene therapy, and one of our targets is cardiovascular disease. If you remember, there was a lot of publicity and hubbub about gene therapy in the late 1990s once the genome puzzle had been figured out. In many cases, we know which gene potentially was mutated and we can reinsert that gene so the body makes a protein that was lacking or blocks a protein that is critical to the progression of a disease.
The big threat of cardiovascular disease is heart attack from a blockage in the coronary artery, which is actually due to inflammation. Say you have chronic inflammation in your arteries—certain proteins will be expressed in response to that inflammation, producing these clogging plaques. So we’re working on a way to reduce the expression of those pro-inflammatory markers. If we can do that, then we can mitigate the formation of these plaques.
The idea has merit and it’s been shown to work many times in the lab. The problem is delivery. Getting it to work in people is much harder. The genes are these little strips of genetic code. If we just inject them, the body has enzymes to break them down, and they won’t last more than a couple of minutes in circulation. It’s considered a harsh environment. So my group is developing nanomaterials to package and protect these sequences until they get where they need to go. Then we’re taking advantage of enzyme degradation or using ultrasound to trigger release locally.
How long before these therapies are available to patients?
PORTER: There’s a messiness to the process of going from the lab bench to the patient’s bedside. We know that the ultrasound-triggered drug release works well, and we’re confident in the particle itself, but we have to get approval for the particle and approval for ultrasound to be used in this particular manner. Then there are sloughs of clinical trials; phase three is the big one, because what you’re proposing is to transform how patients are treated. You have to go up against the gold standard—what is currently used for patient care. Phase three trials are usually multicenter, involving hundreds or thousands of patients. It takes a whole lot of money. It’s not something a single researcher can sponsor; these are things that drug companies invest in heavily to get their product to market. So I’d say these medicines we’re working on are probably a decade out. There’s a lot more work that needs to be done.
For more information, see video.
Cultivating Excellence, Transforming Society
By Mark Dwortzan
In 1963, the College of Industrial Technology (CIT) offered only three degree programs—in technology, aeronautics and management—and occupied a single, four-story building, but the former aviation school’s new dean, Arthur T. Thompson, was bullish about CIT’s future. He aspired to do no less than transform this dot on the Boston University map into an accredited engineering program, and to develop engineers with “the capacity for responsible and effective action as members of our society.”
Thompson began to work this transformation on February 27, 1964—50 years ago today—when CIT was officially renamed as the Boston University College of Engineering. Since then the College has grown to become one of the world’s finest training grounds for future engineers and platforms for innovation in synthetic biology, nanotechnology, photonics and other engineering fields, attracting record levels of student applications, research funding and philanthropic support.
Between 1964 and 2013, the number of degrees conferred annually has increased from zero to 281 bachelors, 184 masters and 53 PhDs; enrollment from around 100 to 1416 undergraduate, zero to 394 masters and zero to 349 PhDs; faculty from 10 to more than 120; advanced degree programs offered from zero to nine masters and six PhDs; and annual sponsored research dollars from zero to $52 million. Meanwhile, the College’s position in the annual US News & World Report’s annual survey of US engineering graduate programs has surged from unranked to the top 20 percent nationally.
At the same time, the College’s faculty, students and alumni have significantly advanced their fields and spearheaded major innovations in healthcare, energy, information and communication, transportation, security and other domains.
Building a World Class Institution
The infrastructure for the world class research and education taking place at today’s College of Engineering was built in stages.
During Thompson’s deanship from 1964 to 1974, the new Aerospace, Manufacturing and Systems Engineering departments received accreditation, with the Manufacturing Engineering program the ﬁrst of its kind to be accredited in the US. The College also instituted the nation’s first BS degree program in bioengineering and expanded to five BS and three MS programs in five fields. Between 1975 and 1985, when Louis Padulo was dean, the College’s student body grew from 250 to 2481; minority and female enrollments skyrocketed; degree offerings rose to 24 BS, MS and PhD programs in eight fields; full-time faculty increased to 67; and sponsored research exceeded $3 million.
When Professor Charles DeLisi (BME) became the new dean in 1990, he recruited many leading researchers in biomedical, manufacturing, aerospace, mechanical, photonics and other engineering fields, establishing a research infrastructure that ultimately propelled the College to its ranking in US News & World Report’s top 50 engineering graduate schools (realized in 2003). A case in point is the BME Department, which DeLisi turned into the world’s foremost biomolecular engineering research hub, paving the way for his successor, Professor David K. Campbell (Physics, ECE), to oversee the department’s receipt in 2001 of a $14 million Whitaker Foundation Leadership Award and discussions leading to additional support from the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation. Between 1990 and 2005, as the number of full-time faculty rose to 120, research centers to eight, and PhD programs to seven, the College’s external research funding surpassed $26 million.
When Professor Kenneth R. Lutchen (BME) took over as dean in 2006, he aligned the curriculum with undergraduates’ growing interest in impacting society, redefining the educational mission of the College to create Societal Engineers, who “use the grounded and creative skills of an engineer to improve the quality of life.”
Lutchen rolled out several programs to advance this agenda, ranging from the Technology Innovation Scholars Program, which sends ENG students to K-12 schools to show how engineering impacts society, to the new Engineering Product Innovation Center (EPIC), a unique, hands-on facility, that will educate all ENG students on product design-to-deployment-to-sustainability. He also ushered in a new era of multidisciplinary education and research collaboration by establishing the Systems Engineering and Materials Science & Engineering divisions along with several new minors and concentrations. Meanwhile, professional education opportunities surged on campus with the introduction of eight new Master of Engineering programs and four new certificate programs.
Moving On to the Next 50 Years
That said, what do the next 50 years hold for the College of Engineering? For starters, upcoming educational initiatives include increased integration of digital technologies in courses; new programs with the schools of Management, Education and Public Health; continued efforts to build the engineering pipeline through outreach to K-12 students; and the Summer Institute for Innovation and Technology Leadership, which recruits companies to host teams of ENG and SMG students to tackle targeted problems.
BU also plans to construct the Center for Integrated Life Sciences and Engineering Building—a seven-story, 150,000-square-foot facility that will include interdisciplinary research space for faculty and students in systems and synthetic biology (expanding the College’s recently launched Center of Synthetic Biology (CoSBi))—within the next 10 years, as well as a 165,000-square-foot science and engineering research building. By 2016, ENG expects to add about 61,500 square feet of new lab and classroom space.
In its first half-century, the College of Engineering—through its students, faculty and alumni—has made its mark on several fields while improving the quality of life around the globe. If its rich history of high-impact education and innovation is any guide, the College can expect many more life-enhancing achievements in the coming 50 years.
New Facility to Equip Students with Design-through-Manufacturing Expertise
By Mark Dwortzan
With the flip of a rather large switch, the Engineering Product Innovation Center (EPIC)—a 15,000-square-foot, $9 million facility that willenable students to develop the knowledge and skills needed in tomorrow’s manufacturing enterprises—opened with a ceremony, reception and guided tours on January 23.
The event drew a packed audience consisting of Boston University leaders; ENG alumni, faculty and students; state and local government officials; and corporate partners, including representatives from principal industry sponsors GE Aviation, Procter & Gamble, PTC and Schlumberger. Many of them gathered around and pulled a large purpose-built switch which turned on many of the machines in the center and activated their start-up lights and sounds.
Featuring $18.8 million in state-of-art-design software donated by PTC, as well as advanced machining tools, laser processing equipment, rapid 3-D printers and intelligent robotics, EPIC will allow students to learn how to create innovative new products in an integrated, holistic way that encompasses design, prototyping, fabrication, manufacturing and lifecycle management. The glass-fronted facility, which is housed in the former Guitar Center building at 750 Commonwealth Avenue, includes a flexible, computer-aided design (CAD) studio, demonstration areas, laboratories and a machining and fabrication center, all in a reconfigurable layout that will be easily adaptable to future technologies and needs.
EPIC will serve as a resource to significantly increase the amount of design work in the undergraduate curriculum through stand-alone courses, enhancements to existing courses and opportunities to collaborate with fellow students, faculty and global leaders in innovation and manufacturing.
“EPIC has a vision of transforming engineering education nationally, so that every engineer, regardless of major, learns the process and excitement of going from design to computer-aided design to prototype to mass-producing something that could be a product to impact society and add economic value,” said Dean Kenneth R. Lutchen in his opening remarks at the event. “We want this to be a hub of design and innovation.”
Noting the critical role that manufacturing plays in today’s economy, BU President Robert A. Brown envisioned EPIC as an important element in reinvigorating manufacturing in the US and empowering ENG students to lead the way.
“Today, more than ever, competitive product development is about the entire integration of product creation, design and manufacturing,” said Brown. “Engineers who can do those things will be highly valued in the marketplace going forward. EPIC is about giving all our engineering students experiences to prepare them for this challenge.”
Jim Heppleman, CEO of PTC, underscored EPIC’s potential to equip ENG students with the practical knowledge and skills to meet that challenge by providing them with a “real-world environment to solve real-world challenges using real-world tools.”
EPIC was funded through the University, ENG alumni and friends, and industrial partners. EPIC’s Industrial Advisory Board (IAB) members, all representatives of the facility’s principal industry sponsors, will provide ongoing suggestions on ways to develop the ENG undergraduate curriculum to better reflect the evolving needs of US industry.