If the physical and chemical laws that govern the biology of living systems are the same as those that govern inanimate objects, isn’t it logical that the quantitative skills engineers bring to the table can substantially add to the biological revolution taking place? For years while ethicists, theologians, human rights groups, and the medical and insurance professions have been debating when life starts, how it should end, or even the quality of life, engineers, biologists, and physicians have been working together to solve some of the most pressing physical needs of society. Researchers in Notre Dame’s College of Engineering focus their bioengineering efforts in the areas of biomechanics, biomaterials, bioinstrumentation, bioinformatics, and bioremediation. Their successes promise to be at the forefront of innovations in medical treatment plans and surgical procedures, the development of chemical and optical sensors for medical applications, and the invention of new drug-delivery systems.
While X-rays and other imaging techniques have long been used to identify broken bones or help locate tumors, new technologies developed at Notre Dame are being used to improve the quality of medical images and provide more accurate diagnoses, radiation dosage assessments, and therapeutic radiation treatments. Professors Danny Z. Chen and X. Sharon Hu — along with their research team in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering and in conjunction with researchers at the University of Iowa, the University of Maryland School of Medicine, the University of New Mexico, the University College of London, and several U.S. medical companies — have been solving problems in radiation cancer treatment and medical imaging. The algorithms they have developed for radiation cancer treatment planning and delivery produce radiation therapy plans that deliver a more accurate dosage in a shorter time period (60 percent faster) than current commercial treatment planning systems and other algorithms. Delivering accurate dosages more quickly allows hospitals to treat more cancer patients, reduces treatment costs for both hospitals and patients, and decreases the risk of over dosage.
Chen and his collaborators are also working on the challenges involved in image-guided surgeries, monitoring the surgery in real-time so the surgeon can “see” not only where the organs are but also confirming that radiation, if it is being applied, is hitting the target areas and not healthy tissue. “We are using novel methods to solve these problems,” says Chen, “a marriage of computer science and medicine, that we believe is forming the cornerstone for more effective treatment options.”
Tanyel Kiziltepe, research assistant professor in the Advanced Diagnostics and Therapeutics (AD&T) initiative at the University of Notre Dame, and Basar Bilgicer, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, are working to address one of the side effects of Trastuzumab, an antibiody used in breast cancer treatment.
Also known as Herceptin®, Trastuzumab, targets and kills the HER2 (Human Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor 2) positive cells found in one of every three breast cancer patients. When used in conjunction with chemotherapy, it has been shown to reduce cancer recurrence up to 50 percent. However, Trastuzumab can also lead to congestive heart failure because the receptor molecules in breast cancer cells that attract the Trastuzumab (so that it can attach to the cancer cells and kill them) are the same molecules located around heart tissue.
The Notre Dame team is working to improve the selectivity of Trastuzumab, so that when it is in the body it can better identify HER2 cancer cells as opposed to healthy ones that have the same receptors, so that the antibiody can become safer and more effective. Their initial results will be tested first in vitro and then in animal studies.