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Special Report:
ECEs and Biomedicine

April 2004


Printer-Friendly Version of this article (1.5MB PDF).

‘Biomedical research needs analytical thinkers with strong skills in modeling, computation, and systems expertise. These are typical ECE skills...’
—Yue Wang

Human Mammary Cell: This image of a human mammary cell was produced using soft X-ray microscopy. The blue dots label proteins of the nuclear pore complex, through which molecules enter and exit the nucleus. ECE’s Yue Wang is pursuing breast cancer diagnosis and treatment developments that will lead to a ‘personalized medicine’ approach, in which the molecular behavior of a individual patient’s cancer can be understood and precise therapy developed for optimal outcome.

‘We must use a more systems-oriented approach. We are dealing with many unknown parameters and multiple variables operating simultaneously...’

For more information, visit the Computational Bioinformatics and Bioimaging Laboratory.

Beyond equipment & imaging...
ECE expertise critical to biomedical research

Medical and Biological Engineering Fellow:
In February, Yue (Joseph) Wang was inducted into the College of Fellows of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE) for his contributions to biomedical in-formatics. AIMBE Fellows represent 2 percent of the researchers active in medical and biological engineering.
Electrical and computer engineers will make a tremendous contribution in advances against devastating diseases such as cancer, diabetes, Parkinson’s, and even the declining functions of the elderly, according to ECE’s Yue (Joseph) Wang.

Breast cancer research
Wang is a recently inducted Fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, an honor awarded to only 2 percent of medical and biological engineering researchers. He leads a $5.5 million research effort to improve the outcome for breast cancer patients. He has worked on a number of medical imaging developments and is developing projects to help understand the multiple factors that influence diseases such as diabetes.

Molecular analysis needed
Researchers are now studying disease at molecular levels and need the analytical skills of engineers to aid in both discovery and understanding of biological systems, Wang said. “Biomedical research needs analytical thinkers with strong skills in modeling, computation, and systems-level expertise. These are typical electrical and computer engineering skills.”

Vast amounts of data for bioinformatics
In studying any single disease, thousands of genes and proteins that interact with each other are studied and tested. Proteins are the basic building blocks of cells and are also involved in cell function and control. A single cell can contain 1 billion molecules capable of interacting with each other. “Vast amounts of data are being generated by the biomedical community,” Wang said – data which needs to be interpreted and analyzed so that the components involved with diseases can be isolated and identified.

This data processing and manipulation typically falls under the bioinformatics field, where a number of computational engineers and computer scientists are now working.

Systems biomedicine requires modeling, engineering skills
Another, newer field, called systems biology or systems biomedicine, is emerging that requires modeling and systems engineering skills based on a solid mathematical and theoretical background, Wang said. The completion of the human genome project, in which every gene in the human body was identified and mapped, has provided a foundation for the field. A frequently used metaphor is that the genome project provided a location map, but the roads and traffic patterns remain unknown.

Systems-oriented approach required
“In biomedical research today, a great challenge is that we must use a more systems-oriented approach,” Wang said. “We are dealing with many unknown parameters and multiple variables that are operating simultaneously.” The reverse engineering needed to understand the communication and operation systems within cells, between cells and at the body level is where ECEs, in particular, can contribute, he noted.

“This is important with diseases that are caused not by a single factor, but by multiple factors. Cancer, for example, can be caused by genetic predisposition, with contributing factors, such as diet, environment, and alcohol consumption. Type 2 Diabetes requires a systems approach, as it is caused almost entirely by multiple social factors, including diet and lack of exercise.”

New mindset for engineers
Scientific and biomedical discovery requires a new mindset for most engineers, Wang said. “This is a big challenge. As engineers, we work within many rules and design principles, because we make things work,” he explained. “When engineers get involved with biomedical research, we must remain open-minded. In scientific discovery, we are trying to discover something that is unknown and our rules and design principles are not always applicable. We are developing new principles.”

Strong math and theoretical skills
He also said that electrical and computer engineers in biomedical research need to develop strong mathematical and theoretical backgrounds and focus on a global systems perspective. “Our greatest challenge in biomedical work is husbanding the systems approach. We ECEs are very good analytical and quantitative thinkers. We are very good at analyzing. We are precise and accurate. These skills are needed, but with a perspective that looks globally at a multilevel system, not just a single component.”

Mutidisciplinary collaboration
Other challenges Wang described are multidisciplinary teamwork and learning other fields. “In biomedical research, we work with people from other backgrounds and we must develop a common language with them. It is not easy. This requires us to engage in continuous learning in non-traditional ECE areas.” Working with experts in other fields also provides some of the greatest satisfaction, Wang said. “You can learn so much from your collaborators.”

Wang, who is based in Northern Virginia, is a member of the Alexandria Research Institute (ARI) and also serves as an adjunct professor of radiology at Johns Hopkins Medical Institu-tions. He works with teams that include biologists and physicians from Georgetown University, Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, the National Institutes of Health, and the Children’s National Medical Center.

Collaborations, discoveries trigger change in focus for research teams
The teams have evolved and changed their focus as new discoveries and new collaborations led to new paths of exploration. Initially, Wang’s focus was in imaging related to prostate cancer, then breast cancer diagnosis and prognosis. Subsequent projects involved imaging to monitor therapy and molecular analysis to discover biomarkers of the effects of therapy (page 8). Now the team is exploring using a systems approach to understand the molecular functions in diabetes (page 9) and eventually in neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.

“Our research evolves according to the new challenges we face and according to the needs of society,” Wang said. That is an advantage of working with experts in many disciplines, he added.
“Biomedicine is the interface between engineering and science. It gives us engineers the opportunity to be involved in new discoveries that directly impact the well being of others,” he said. “It’s very satisfying.” (Continued. See Seeking molecular biomarkers...and Systems approach to Diabetes)

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Last updated: Tue, Jun 8, 2004