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From Napkin to Prototype: Bringing Health Innovation to Life

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Image courtesy of r. nial bradshaw, Flickr Creative Commons

Where does a cardiologist go when she has an idea to improve a common medical device? She knows that a pacemaker with a longer lifespan and lighter weight could help improve her patients’ quality of life, but how does she make her idea into a reality?

That’s where the Penn Center for Health, Devices, and Technology (Penn Health-Tech) comes in. The Center is a Penn-wide effort to advance budding ideas into new devices and health technologies to solve unmet health care needs. Last year, a $300,000 gift of seed funds was awarded to five grant winners at the Center’s inaugural symposium. Taken together, these first projects are an example of the broad array of ideas being hatched at Penn. Neurologists, pulmonologists, pediatricians, bioengineers, and material scientists have teamed up to design a new fabric to monitor changes in perspiration, diagnose disease on a microchip using a cell-phone camera, develop a wearable breathing aid for emphysema patients, improve delivery of gene therapy for brain disorders, and upgrade a method to make new bone at surgical sites for kids with cranio-facial disorders. These projects are in different stages of development, from building prototypes and software to conducting proof-of-principle animal studies to soon running clinical trials.

From the experience of this first round of projects, David Issadore, PhD, an assistant professor of Bioengineering, spoke with Penn Health-Tech about the value of an interdisciplinary center that spans medicine and engineering: “It’s challenging to find people who can cross that divide. There are very few engineers who speak medicine and very few doctors who speak engineer.”

Emblematic of this bridge-building is one potential application of the microchip project led by Issadore and Andrew Tsourkas, PhD, a professor of Bioengineering. Using machine learning, Issadore worked with Ben Stanger, MD, PhD, an associate professor of Gastroenterology, and Erica Carpenter, PhD, MBA, director of the Circulating Tumor Material Center, in the Perelman School of Medicine to identify panels of microRNAs as blood-based biomarkers to detect pancreatic cancer at a pre-cancerous stage.

To eventually commercialize ideas, Penn Health-Tech works closely with the Penn Center for Innovation (PCI) to take concepts to the next level by linking investigators with startups and established firms. To launch the next generation of med-tech entrepreneurs, it also pairs undergraduate, master’s, graduate, and professional students with Penn investigators and industry partners in a new certificate program in the Schools of Medicine, Engineering, and Wharton. Penn Health-Tech’s leadership reflects this interdisciplinary emphasis. The Center is co-directed by Brian Litt, MD, a professor of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Bioengineering, Insup Lee, PhD, a professor of Computer and Information Science, and Mark Turco, MD, the Chief Innovation and Corporate Outreach Officer for PCI.

“What differentiates Penn Health-Tech from other more well-established medical device centers is that we have living labs within a 12-block walkable radius,” Turco said, referring to Center users and partners in the Schools of Medicine, Nursing, Veterinary Medicine, Dental, Engineering, Design, Arts & Sciences, and Applied Sciences, along with Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “This rich, close-knit ecosystem is what makes us different. The collection of different mindsets and expertise is critical to developing devices in a marketable way. Just making another widget won’t cut it.”

Penn Health-Tech is the brain child of Jon Epstein, MD, executive vice dean and chief scientific officer for Penn Medicine, Provost Dawn Bonnell, PhD, and Vijay Kumar, PhD, dean of the School of Engineering. Epstein, a cardiologist and laboratory researcher by training, knows that by tweaking medical device use and design, “small changes have a big impact.”

Speaking of devices to improve heart health, the first thing our pace-maker-improving cardiologist could do is attend one of Penn Health-Tech’s monthly meet-ups. Users of the Center’s expertise brainstorm at these meetings with engineers, clinicians, and basic scientists. For example, Jaimo Ahn, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of Orthopaedic Surgery, often performs surgery in trauma situations. He attended a meet-up seeking help for new ways to repair femurs by lining up a stabilizing rod through broken bone fragments with a better field of vision. Right now, surgeons have to place the rod by looking at both the injury itself as well as an image projected on a screen that assists with accurate passage of the rod through the sections of bone. Ahn is working with computer engineers to design software to merge several images of the long bone and view it with a Google Glass-like visor which would allow a surgeon to take in the entire process in one sweeping view.

At the April meet-up two cardiologists Howard Herrman, MD, and Saif Anwaruddin, MD presented problems with heart-valve-replacement devices to Penn Health-Tech staff, engineers, and students from the Medical Device Club. The physicians asked the audience for ideas to decrease leakiness and outflow associated with currently designed artificial valves. The engineers came up with some creative ideas, such as adding hooks to stabilize a valve to decrease leakiness and scalloping a new, floppier valve leaflet to decrease outflow.

No matter where a need or idea arises, the term ‘medical device’ can mean many different things. In fact, this is so much the case that when the Penn Health Tech website was first being developed, there was no one image they could find that conveyed the essence of what they are all about. A year on, the center has certainly become the centralized place at Penn for good ideas to get off the napkin and into prototype.

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