Joint Biomedical Engineering Program Bridges Campuses on Tobacco Road

Xconomy Raleigh-Durham — 

Some scientists wait years to see their research resonate with patients. The drug delivery research of Zhen Gu, a biomedical engineering professor at NC State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is still early but he sees diabetics express interest in his work every day.

One of Gu’s projects is a “smart” insulin patch covered with microneedles. In addition to storing microscopic amounts of insulin, these tiny needles also respond to a patient’s glucose levels, releasing their payload when blood sugar gets too high. This smart patch has only been tested in mice, and human testing may be years away. But if it works, diabetics wouldn’t need syringes to administer insulin. Since publishing the research, Gu says he receives daily e-mails from diabetics asking about clinical trials.

Gu’s smart insulin patch is one of a number of technologies in development at the joint biomedical engineering department at NC State and UNC. Beyond teaching biomedical engineering, the program also pursues research with potential applications in drug delivery, regenerative medicine, and medical imaging. Nancy Allbritton, chair of the department, says the research is an effort to keep pace with industry trends bridging medicine and engineering.

“If you’re looking at the best and the biggest science happening right now, it’s at the interface of disciplines,” she says.

It’s an interface where NC State and UNC have played for years, though not always as partners. UNC has one of North Carolina’s four medical schools, but few engineering courses. NC State has an engineering school and a veterinary school, but no medical school. In 2003, the universities agreed to form a joint biomedical engineering program permitting graduate students to take classes at both schools toward a biomedical engineering degree awarded by both universities. Last year, the universities expanded the program to undergraduates. At commencement ceremonies this weekend, the program will award its first undergraduate degrees in biomedical engineering.

Allbritton says the joint program’s expansion comes amid growing industry demand for biomedical engineers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that biomedical engineering jobs will grow 23 percent between 2014 and 2024, compared to the 7 percent average growth rate for all other occupations. California and Massachusetts are the top two states employing biomedical engineers, according to federal figures. Indiana and Minnesota follow, reflecting the medical device industry’s strong presence in both states. While the pharma industry eclipses medical devices in North Carolina, Allbritton says the growing overlap between drugs and devices, and the strong life sciences industry presence in nearby Research Triangle Park, creates an opportunity for the two universities to funnel graduates into local companies rather than sending biomedical engineers out of state.

UNC and NC State can’t claim a monopoly on biomedical engineering education in North Carolina. A short drive away, Duke University’s biomedical engineering department marries the strengths of its engineering and medical schools. Wake Forest University’s joint biomedical engineering program crosses state borders in a partnership with Virginia Tech.

Allbritton says NC State/UNC’s joint program can stand out by emphasizing entrepreneurship. For example, a private $500,000 donation supports a pitch competition for undergraduates over the next five years. Students must come up with ideas to address a real world problem and then pitch a project. Top pitches can win up to $15,000—too little to launch a company, but enough to build a prototype and start intellectual property work, Allbritton says.

She adds that students aren’t “saddled with the baggage” that some industry veterans carry about what can and can’t be done. “[Students] think everything can be done so they come up with some unique and innovative solutions,” she says.

Faculty members are also innovators; Allbritton counts 25 startups founded among them. Gu, who is sharing in a recently announced $4.6 million award that the JDRF and pharma giant Sanofi (NYSE: SNY) designated for research in glucose-responsive insulin therapies, says he may form a company to develop his smart insulin patch. Allbritton says these entrepreneurial aspirations are more than what university administrators envisioned in 2003, when the goal was simply to have the two universities work together. She now estimates that 10 percent of the program’s 100 graduate students are involved in a startup, “a good number, but we think we can do even better,” she says.

In a move to bolster the joint program’s entrepreneurial emphasis, the universities last year hired RTP life sciences veteran Preston Linn. Though Linn retired in 2007 after 22 years in various research and management roles at Becton Dickinson (NYSE: BD), he is still a fixture at life science events throughout the Research Triangle region. As the joint program’s industry academic coordinator, Linn is the program’s link to life science companies.

Trained as a scientist, Linn says that only after some time away from Becton Dickinson did he come to realize the value of biomedical engineering’s interdisciplinary approach. Engineers build things, but scientists do experiments. Real world problems that life science companies are trying to solve call for both approaches, he explains. Linn hopes that the joint program helps build connections that link university research with RTP companies, an approach that NC State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is taking with its agbio research.

Allbritton would like the joint program to eventually add a site in RTP, a natural midpoint between the two universities that’s also home to many companies. Becton Dickinson, for example, still maintains an RTP research site; Bioventus, a company that develops biological products to help bones heal, is headquartered just outside of the Park. Allbritton says students would benefit from this proximity, which positions them to make the sort of professional contacts that can lead to mentors, internships, and jobs.

The private sector is already building new RTP space for university/industry collaboration. Alexandria Real Estate Equities (NYSE: ARE) is moving forward with plans to turn the 56-acre site it purchased from The Hamner Institutes for Health Sciences into one million square feet of new laboratory and office space. When the company announced the Alexandria Center for Science, Technology and Agriculture last year, CEO Joel Marcus said it will include space for researchers from UNC, NC State, and Duke.

Besides private sector partnerships, Allbritton also wants the program to work with the military because some university biomedical research could apply to soldiers in the field. Military ties are already developing. Bunker Labs RDU, an accelerator program for veterans that launched earlier this year, is working with the universities to carve out a portion of its RTP offices that will become a makerspace for student biomedical engineering projects.

In the meantime, the joint program’s entrepreneurial emphasis is rubbing off on undergraduates. Before choosing UNC, John Larson, now a senior and one of nearly 300 undergraduates in the department, had considered the Georgia Institute of Technology’s biomedical engineering program jointly operated with Emory University. He was interested in both engineering and medicine, but admits that he arrived at Chapel Hill with no major in mind. Larson now says the NC State/UNC joint program’s entrepreneurial emphasis spurred his own business ambitions. He points to the program’s senior design project, which involves designing, developing, and prototyping a product that addresses a healthcare need—possibly sparking the launch of a company.

“If my product is adequately marketable, that is exactly what I plan to do,” Larson says.