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Left to Their Own Devices

At the intersection of medicine and technology, the U's Medical Devices Center fosters unprecedented collaboration, incubation, and exploration.

By Mary Winstead

In a full room, people in 3D glasses watch videos while a student at a computer monitor fiddles with what looks like a PlayStation game. Across the hall, another room is stocked with Legos, Play-Doh, and a rainbow of colored markers.

A closer look reveals that the video is of a beating heart undergoing micro-surgery, the computer is modeling a replica of a scoliotic spine, and the toys are tools to create the first rough prototype for what might someday become a nanocapsule delivery system for molecular therapy.

From Prototype to Patent
Welcome to the Medical Devices Center (MDC) at the University of Minnesota, where world-class biomedical researchers just might be creating tomorrow's medical miracles. Imagine doctors and engineers meeting at the intersection of medicine and technology to invent a wearable monitor to assess autism or a sensor for detecting cancer at its earliest stages. MDC is making it easier for interdisciplinary teams working on these and countless other pressing medical issues by reducing the time it takes them to brainstorm, prototype, and test ideas for devices that will eventually be patented and sent to the Food and Drug Administration for approval.

Art of Science Interactive GraphicTHE ART OF SCIENCE
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"The center directly fills the void that used to exist in going from idea to advanced prototype," says Arthur Erdman, center director and Richard C. Jordan Professor in Mechanical Engineering. What's new is the way MDC allows physicians and engineers to collaborate in consultation with patients, during surgeries, and in the physical therapy and rehabilitation processes. "Engineers found that we needed medical expertise to solve our design problems, and physicians found that they needed technical expertise to solve their medical problems," Erdman points out.

To facilitate this dialogue, links are being created to the clinical setting. A high-tech viewing system is under construction that will soon connect MDC with U of M Hospital operating rooms so that engineers can watch doctors perform surgical procedures in real time, ask questions, and get feedback without being in the way. "We may be across campus but we'll be in the same room working on the same problem," Erdman says. "And we're one of a very few doing it."

Biomedical 'Boot Camp'
In addition to its commitment to high-level research, MDC uses liaisons with medicine and technology to foster an incubator space that's preparing students to work in Minnesota's thriving biotech industry. Gerald Timm, a U of M professor of urologic surgery who has opened five companies related to medical devices says that one of the biggest challenges engineers face is learning medical terminology. "Vocabulary helps you develop a toolkit for problem-solving," he says. "Companies look for students with that toolkit of skills. The Medical Devices Center will be an opportunity for them to develop it."

Giants in the medical device industry like Medtronic are facilitating research and development in the center's laboratories thanks to gifts of cutting-edge equipment. Other connections to industry are being encouraged through visionary private giving, such as a recent gift to establish a venture fund that allows the U to invest in commercially promising biotechnology.

Boston Scientific and St. Jude Medical have made gifts to help train novice and mid-career professionals in the field by partially sponsoring the inaugural year of an innovative fellows program. To launch the program, three engineers and one medical student have left work and school to undergo an intense process designed to produce 20 patent applications by the end of the year.

"They are working as a team, from boot camp through implementation," says Marie Johnson, who created, implemented, and now manages the program-a hands-on opportunity to experience all aspects of the industry. "From creative ideation and clinical immersion to conducting legal due diligence, it's all encompassing."

Ben Arcand left his engineering position at Boston Scientific to spend a year in the MDC fellows program. "In the corporate world, I worked on one assignment at a time," he recalls. "Here, we come up with a steady stream of ideas for numerous products that will someday be useful to doctors and patients."

Now in the clinical immersion phase of the fellowship, which includes ambulance ride-alongs and participation in hospital rounds with physicians, Arcand feels he's being trained to come up with better ideas, conduct more innovative research, and acquire a fuller knowledge of science, technology, business, and marketing. "It's great," he says. "I'd never heard of anything like it."

But news is spreading fast. Experts from the biomedical industry nationwide are anxious to participate in the center's creative processes, and applications for the next fellowship cycle have more than doubled. "This is the premier place in the country to go for this kind of collaboration," Erdman says. "And the only way to go is up."

Mary Winstead is U of M Foundation senior writer.

This story originally appeared in the spring 2009 issue of Legacy, a magazine for University of Minnesota donors and friends published by the U of M Foundation.

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