Lonnie Shea is a professor of chemical and bioengineering at the University of Michigan. His wife, Dr. Jacqueline Jeruss, is an associate professor of surgical oncology at the medical school. Together, they're creating a “cancer magnet” to implant just under the skin, such as on the arm, to determine if cancer cells return after surgery or chemotherapy.
“If metastatic cells re-emerge, that's the first place they would go,” said Shea, adding that the implant could serve as “a canary in a coal mine” and would offer an early alert to patients and physicians that cancer has returned.
The couple, recruited last summer from Northwestern University, said the intersection of his engineering sensibilities and her physician perspective helped inspire the metastatic-sensor implants idea. Their different viewpoints were crucial to identifying the opportunities and the constraints in the technology. “I will never understand breast cancer to the extent she does,” Shea said. “It would be hard for a Ph.D to understand all the subtleties of that patient experience. But she can convey the needs and understands the challenges.”
Some of the nation's leading research universities, including U-M, want to create within their institutional walls what these two researchers brought together in one family: greater collaboration between engineering and medical school faculties to foster next-generation technologies. The goal is to not only advance the practice of medicine, but to improve the patient experience and foster a more efficient healthcare system, which has usually been beyond the purview of university-based scientists.
Michigan created its Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering in 2012. It formally linked the schools of medicine and engineering with the aims of bringing biomedical researchers closer to patients and speeding the integration of new discoveries into medical care.
While medical-engineering collaborations have been ongoing between Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology since 1970, MIT entered into a formal agreement last October with Massachusetts General Hospital, one of Harvard Medical School's main teaching hospitals. The goals included improving disease diagnosis, finding new ways to treat and prevent infectious and autoimmune diseases, and improving diagnosis and treatment of neuro-degenerative and psychiatric illnesses.