Five Challenges Facing the Life Sciences Field

Highlights from the IEEE Life Sciences Grand Challenges Conference

19 December 2012
blog_he Photo: Alex Doud

Bin He is cochair of the IEEE Life Sciences New Initiative and chair of the IEEE Life Sciences Grand Challenges conference. He is a distinguished professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis, and director of its Institute for Engineering in Medicine.

On 4 and 5 October, the first IEEE Life Sciences Grand Challenges Conference (LSGCC) took place in the National Academies Building, in Washington, D.C. We were fortunate to have outstanding keynote and plenary speakers (including a Nobel Laureate) addressing the most significant challenges that face the scientific community in the 21st century, as we confront biomedical and health problems using physical science and engineering approaches.

The conference, organized by the IEEE Life Sciences Initiative, was sponsored by the Institute for Engineering in Medicine of the University of Minnesota and the National Science Foundation, and endorsed by the International Academy of Medical and Biological Engineering, provided a public forum for discussion and debate on the grand challenges and major technical trends at the interface of engineering, life sciences and healthcare.

More than 130 participants from Australia, Canada, China, Germany, Romania, the UK, and United States actively engaged in discussions, formulating grand challenges and directions for future developments in five key areas: Brain Disorders and Nervous Systems, Heart Diseases and Cardiovascular Systems, Cancer, Education and Training, and Translation from Bench to Bedside.

Phillip Sharp, Nobel Laureate and National Medal of Science Laureate; Charles Vest, president of the National Academy of Engineering and National Medal of Technology Laureate, and Roderic Pettigrew, director of National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering of National Institutes of Health, gave insightful keynote presentations. Twenty eminent speakers presented their views of specific grand challenges in five plenary sessions and responded to audience questions in panel discussions.

Following the plenary sessions with presentations and panel discussions, the conference participants actively participated in breakout meetings and formulated their own versions of the grand challenges and proposed possible solutions in those five key areas. The conference was a rare opportunity for this type of public participation in a thoughtful forum that included panel sessions and small group discussions by all participants.

I’d like to comment on some of the challenges and opportunities discussed.

Brain Disorders and Nervous Systems
We are only on the threshold of using technology to help the millions of people worldwide who have experienced loss of bodily function. One Grand Challenge in this area is to restore all bodily functions to these individuals by developing neuromodulation technologies to modulate nervous systems at cell, tissue, and organ levels. Several presenters reported on research projects they have conducted on practical ways to restore physiological function including the development of both non-invasive and implantable devices to both stimulate and sense electrical activity in the brain.

Exciting and challenging is to restore lost functions using noninvasive brain-computer interface technology. Great progress has been made recently to control external devices using noninvasive brain wave signals, which opens up possibilities for brain controlled artificial limbs in the future.

For the first time in history, we have the ability to use electrical stimulation to restore effective and coordinated bodily motion to patients with diverse medical conditions such as paralysis and Parkinson's disease. Another area of tremendous impact that is within our grasp is the ability to restore vision, at least partially, to those who have lost their sight. Yet significant obstacles still remain before these techniques see widespread applications.

Heart Diseases and Cardiovascular Systems
We frequently hear news of research projects that seek to produce replacement organs to take over the function of destroyed or diseased body parts. Heart and lung tissue are particularly difficult to replace, due to their complex functionality. We heard of advances and challenges facing the production of artificial and "natural" heart and lung tissue.

Related research involves the creation of a functional microvascular bed, which is a pre-requisite for any replacement organ.

MR imaging is a staple used in current medical diagnosis but its extension to imaging rapidly moving structures, such as the interior of the heart, was the focus of another challenge. New imaging techniques promise an improvement of several orders of magnitude in the speed of capturing images, making it possible to visualize dynamic movement of the heart.

Repositioning of existing drugs for treating cancer has been an important approach for pharmaceutical companies. (Repositioning refers to the use of drugs for purposes other than which they were first approved.) Since existing drugs have already passed toxicity tests, their approval process for new purposes is shortened. Molecular imaging techniques that can aid repositioning were described.

Nanotechnologies are being developed to detect the presence of cancer cells, such as a nanopore array that can analyze DNA, and devices to measure individual cell mass. Such technologies could find clinical applications in the near future.

Education and Training
A Grand Challenge in this area is to educate a sufficient number of researchers and engineers with a background in both engineering and life sciences to allow them to contribute meaningfully in the next decades. The United States’ educational system, for example, experiences significant dropout rates for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) students in their undergraduate years. We heard how critical it is for STEM students to receive good career guidance and hands-on experience during their first undergraduate year if we are to retain them in these fields.

Representatives of NIH and NSF discussed their organizations' current roles and future plans in helping to meet this Grand Challenge. A great effort made by NIH and NSF is to fund various innovative training programs to move the training beyond what is commonly practiced in most schools.

Translation - From Bench to Bedside
Surgical robots have been increasingly used in a variety of medical procedures since the 1980s.  A number of obstacles have prevented or slowed their application.  One challenge is to design the robot technology so that it actually aid surgeons in their practice.

Another challenge in moving technology to the bedside is in improving the process of demonstrating the efficacy and safety of new treatments or devices to achieve regulatory approval. One avenue is the use of virtual prototyping of devices in simulated bodily environments as an adjunct to in vivo testing in animals and humans. Improvement of the entire regulatory process and increased industry collaboration and partnerships are two avenues suggested by plenary speakers to reduce regulatory bottlenecks.

The above represent only a portion of the challenges and possibilities covered in the conference. This is the first of a continuing series of IEEE Life Sciences Grand Challenges Conferences.  The time and location of the next one will be announced soon. We hope that you will be able to participate with us in the next conference!

Presentations and photos from the conference are posted on IEEE Life Sciences Portal . Interviews with speakers will be presented in upcoming issues of IEEE Life Sciences Newsletter. I hope you check them out.

Photo: Lee Moffitt, IEEE


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