Under the headline “Engineers and Physicians: Vital Partners in the Health Care Revolution,” Texas Engineer, the magazine of The University of Texas’ Cockrell School of Engineering, featured an early success story about a Ascension Seton physician partnering closely – and successfully – with a UT researcher.
Such partnerships already are proliferating as Ascension Seton erects its new teaching hospital, Dell Ascension Seton Medical Center at the University of Texas, and UT builds its new Dell Medical School around the new teaching hospital downtown around 15th and Red River streets.
Painful procedures. Fatal surgeries. Late diagnoses and ineffective treatments. Our nation’s critical health care problems cannot be solved in a research lab alone. The relationship between the engineer and the physician is crucial.
With the rise of the Dell Medical School, opening fall 2016, The University of Texas at Austin will soon be a hotbed for cross-disciplinary health care collaborations. Today, faculty and students across the Cockrell School of Engineering are already leading the way, working with medical professionals to develop technically sound, patient-friendly devices that will streamline care, cut costs and save lives.
For more than eight years, biomedical engineering associate professor James Tunnell (right) and Dr. Jason Reichenberg, Ascension Seton dermatologist and clinical director of dermatology for University of Texas Physicians Group, have worked together to develop a way to quickly and painlessly detect skin cancer.
About the size of a pen, their award-winning device shines light onto a patient’s skin and then gathers data that is analyzed on a computer. Through the data, doctors can detect three major types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma. Each reading takes about five seconds. The device will begin pre-clinical trials in early 2016.
Tunnell’s and Reichenberg’s success is just one example of the power of this kind of collaboration. The team estimates that today 25 negative biopsies are performed for every one case of skin cancer detected. These procedures cost patients time, pain and money, and translate to an estimated annual cost of $6 billion to the U.S. health care system. Once in the hands of physicians, this device will reduce the need for biopsies and help identify dangerous lesions earlier.
“Though our device isn’t on the market just yet, our work shows my patients that doctors are trying to make things better,” Reichenberg says. “It’s exciting to be able to give them hope that one day we can avoid painful procedures.”
Out of the Lab and Into the Clinic
Tunnell arrived at the Cockrell School as an assistant professor in 2005 and was interested in non-invasive diagnostic techniques. He began building a prototype of a device that could detect skin cancer, but he knew he needed a partner outside the world of engineering.
“To find meaningful biomedical solutions, you can’t just read books and conduct experiments in a void,” Tunnell says.“You have to put technologies in the hands of the people who will use them so they can tell you what is and isn’t working.”
Physicians are commonly involved in medical research, but most work on clinical trials for medicines. Device-related research operates on a much longer timeline — often lasting 10 years or more. It can be difficult for engineers to recruit collaborators from the medical field who are working with patients and have little time to supervise a long-term project.
After completing his dermatology residency at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., Reichenberg relocated to Austin in 2006 to develop a dermatology training program. After years of performing biopsies, he was passionate about making skin cancer diagnoses more efficient and less painful.
He and Tunnell met at the perfect time.
“We had common motivations and were at similar stages in our careers. We weren’t fully established with large labs, but we weren’t so new that we didn’t have any resources,” Reichenberg says.
The team’s collaboration has been a constant back and forth, yielding numerous iterations and prototypes. Inside Cockrell School research labs, Tunnell and his biomedical engineering graduate students designed and developed the device. Then they brought versions to Seton’s clinic, where Reichenberg and his medical residents provided insight into the needs and expectations of patients and physicians.
The team is currently refining the device to ensure that physicians can use it independently. Today, an engineer must be present when the physician is using the device to help interpret the data. Tunnell’s group is working to generate a graded scale or a black and white reading that physicians can quickly process and relay to the patient.
Each time Tunnell’s students visit the clinic with a new prototype, they are exposed to other clinical procedures that could be improved with new technology.
“As a biomedical engineer, spending time with patients and physicians is incredibly important,” Tunnell says. “If we hadn’t been in the clinic working on the skin cancer device, we wouldn’t have seen issues and gone back to the lab to see how we might address them.”
A New Era of Collaboration on the Forty Acres
Soon, however, the Dell Medical School will dramatically expand opportunities for collaboration. Cross-disciplinary education is already built into the school’s innovative curriculum. Third-year medical students will have the option to pursue dual master’s degrees or traditional research. The Cockrell School will offer a third-year master’s degree in biomedical engineering.
“It is an exciting opportunity to cross-train students who will be able to go out in the world and do both — practice medicine and develop technically sound devices,” Tunnell says.
In addition to their time spent on the Forty Acres, medical students and faculty will work, train and learn at Ascension Seton facilities, including the new Dell Ascension Seton Medical Center currently under construction at UT Austin.
Reichenberg looks forward to the opportunities to bring more physicians and engineers together.
“Medical students are eager to learn by doing projects together and they will push passed obstacles to make it work,” he says. “If even one of these 50 new medical students decides to spend some time developing devices, we have plenty of projects for them.”