One Rutgers, A World of Discovery
The new Rutgers, combining nearly 250 years of academic excellence with a renewed commitment to medical education, is inspiring faculty, students and staff to form innovative partnerships in academic research and public service. In an online series, Rutgers Today examines the new ways that members of the university community are collaborating, across a wide range of disciplines, to better meet the needs of the people of New Jersey and beyond.
– The Editors
New technologies for improved surgical tools or systems that speed access to time-sensitive pathology reports may well come from undergraduates working side-by-side with physicians in teaching labs and operating rooms.
Such novel ideas spring from a program piloted last year – and expanded this fall – in which Rutgers biomedical engineering students gain real-world perspective by interacting with Robert Wood Johnson Medical School faculty and teaching-hospital physicians.
The students, all fourth-year undergraduates, observe how physicians work and digest their wish lists for tools that could improve their effectiveness, The students then apply that knowledge to their senior design projects, developing technologies that meet practical needs. The aim: to benefit medicine and health care, and most notably make surgery safer and more efficient.
The interaction is whetting the appetites of both the physicians and students.
“The students came up with ideas that truly impressed the physicians,” said Susan Engelhardt, the program’s manager. “These ideas resulted from the students viewing surgeries through an engineering lens. Sometimes it takes this integrated perspective to truly innovate.”
One student, for instance, proposed a portable pathology device to analyze tissue in the operating room to avoid having it sent to a lab elsewhere in the hospital, which could prolong surgery and increase the risk of infection. Another suggested replacing traditional operating room lamps with more flexible, light-emitting diode (LED) technology that can better target the visual field. And several students suggested ways to modify surgical tools that would make them more durable and easier to use in the crowded and fast-paced operating room environment.
The physicians welcome the students’ perspective, said Engelhardt, who is also executive director of the Center for Innovative Ventures of Emerging Technologies (CIVET), an organization that helps Rutgers innovators pursue opportunities to commercialize their work. A typical reaction: “I want to work with your engineers to help me solve a problem – who’s available?”
The program, “Innovative Senior Design,” was tested last year on a small scale, with nine students tackling three projects and seed funding from the National Institutes of Health. The clinical immersion – time spent in medical school laboratories and operating rooms – lasted more than a week between the fall and spring semesters.
Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital is a 600-bed academic medical center and the principal hospital of Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. It is also the hub of a clinically-integrated medical campus that includes the National Cancer Institute-designated Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, the Child Health Institute of New Jersey and The Bristol-Myers Squibb Children’s HospitalThis year, Engelhardt and biomedical engineering professor Francois Berthiaume are expanding the program to include 25 students representing eight projects. The program will receive additional funding from the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance.
“While all of the projects are technically strong, we look for projects that have the most clinical relevance and commercial potential,” said Berthiaume. Last year, the three participating teams were chosen from eight that applied.
One project examined ways to reduce fat content in donor livers before they are transplanted. Another looked at an imaging technology that makes nerve cells more visible during surgery to reduce nerve damage. The third involved a device to promote rehabilitation in people who have suffered strokes or injuries.
A student on the nerve cell imaging project, Jayana Kenana, said her favorite part of the program was working in research laboratories at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. She recalled a biomedical engineering graduate student collaborating with surgeons on new ways to repair damaged menisci, cartilage-like tissues that cushion the ends of bones in joints such as elbows and knees.
“I thought it was so cool that a graduate student worked in such close proximity with practicing doctors in a hospital,” said Kenana. “It shows that we need integration. We found so many great opportunities to innovate, and we want to share this perspective with other students around us.”
Sreenivasan Rajendran, a student on the liver defatting project, found his experience in the operating room invaluable. “The difficulties and advantages [of the surgical tools] were obvious,” he said. “The surgeons were clear and concise about what helps them. We were able to understand – there was no buffer.”
At the end of each term, faculty members will judge whether the students produced a working prototype of their project, defined their market and made viable revenue forecasts. Projects that aren’t ready can be refined by next year’s students. Otherwise, CIVET staff will seek industrial and financial investors for partnership, licensing or financing a start-up company. In fact, CIVET has started taking these steps with the stroke rehabilitation device.
Engelhardt and Berthiaume credit Associate Professor Ramsey Foty and Assistant Professor Tomer Davidov, both in the Department of Surgery at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, for supporting the program and recruiting colleagues to participate in its clinical immersion segment. The students got to observe vascular, gynecological and cancer surgeries.
“As a surgeon, I find it useful to have young students with different perspectives who can recognize when things are not working as smoothly as they could be in the operating room and can come up with ideas on how to innovate,” said Davidov, a general and endocrine surgeon who believes the program showcases the benefits of integrating the medical schools with Rutgers.
“There will be further collaboration that will lead to true medical device innovation,” Davidov said.
Foty, a developmental biologist who studies the properties of cancerous tumors, said the clinical immersion experience shows students what they can provide to the clinical community.
“It gets students cross-trained between disciplines,” said Foty. “You can think about the physics and math all you want, but until you can walk into a situation where you have a patient in front of you, you can’t fully appreciate how to actually engineer an instrument.”