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Vol. LIX, No. 14
July 13, 2007

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NIBIB Fifth Anniversary Celebrates Innovative Interdisciplinary Research

On the front page...

The last astronaut to walk on the moon, a former U.S. surgeon general and a Nobel Prize winner were among those who helped NIBIB celebrate its fifth anniversary May 31 and June 1. The scientific program, "Changing the World's Health Care Through Biomedical Technologies" at Lister Hill Auditorium highlighted the critical role NIBIB plays in leading interdisciplinary research to develop innovative technologies that improve health care. The audience was welcomed and the day's program was introduced by the current and first NIBIB director Dr. Roderic Pettigrew.

The event began with a dinner the evening before the symposium. In opening remarks, former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher said, "Integrating bioimaging and bioengineering will be critical to research in the future and to the new medical paradigm." Indeed, "NIBIB is at the forefront of a lot of what we must do to face the changing medical paradigm," which includes an aging population, increasing diversity and growing global interconnectedness, said Satcher.


  NIBIB director Dr. Roderic Pettigrew presents the NIBIB Landmark Achievement Award to M. Joan Dawson, wife of the late Dr. Paul Lauterbur.  
  NIBIB director Dr. Roderic Pettigrew presents the NIBIB Landmark Achievement Award to M. Joan Dawson, wife of the late Dr. Paul Lauterbur.  
Former U.S. senator and Apollo astronaut Harrison Schmitt, the last man to have walked on the moon, gave the evening's keynote address and described the synergies between space exploration and health care research. Schmitt, who chairs the NASA advisory council, envisioned an even stronger relationship between NASA and NIH. He described the "extraordinary science legacy" of the Apollo program and emphasized the importance of continuing to build a reservoir of young scientists, engineers and other skilled workers. "We need another Sputnik generation but one not just related to space exploration," he said.

He also provided a few lessons from the Apollo program, including what he defined as "the greatest mistake after Apollo. We made a big investment of tax dollars and then walked away," he said. "We didn't amortize our investment." Future space exploration such as travel to Mars will require improved understanding of biomedical issues such as muscle atrophy, bone loss and immune system reactions. Schmitt urged more research on these and other biomedical issues because "compared to how we do medicine on Earth, we are in the dark in space."

The evening's most poignant moment came when Pettigrew presented the inaugural NIBIB Landmark Achievement Award to magnetic resonance imaging pioneer Dr. Paul Lauterbur's widow, M. Joan Dawson, who accepted the award on behalf of the Nobel laureate. Lauterbur died in March. Visibly moved, Dawson said, "This is quite a singular moment for me. Paul was very grateful he would be receiving this award. Thank you."

Emerging Technologies

The scientific program June 1 highlighted the increasing role NIBIB plays in fostering interdisciplinary research of innovative technologies. NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni outlined the critical role NIBIB plays in supporting emerging technologies to quantify and measure biological systems. "NIBIB is the missing piece that needed to exist to accelerate progress across biological disciplines in the 21st century," he said. He noted that NIBIB was created to provide a home for the discovery of new technologies, techniques and approaches to solve major challenges in the health care system.

  Dr. Roderic Pettigrew poses with special guests Dr. Charles Townes
  Former U.S. senator and Apollo astronaut Harrison Schmitt and Dr. Roderic Pettigrew
  Pettigrew poses with special guests Dr. Charles Townes (top, r), recipient of the 1964 Nobel Prize in physics for his discovery of the laser, and with former U.S. senator and Apollo astronaut Harrison Schmitt (bottom, l). Townes was the honored speaker at the NIBIB fifth anniversary symposium held on June 1. Schmitt, the last man to have walked on the moon, spoke at the May 31 anniversary dinner.
Establishing NIBIB was not easy; both the bioengineering and biomedical imaging communities struggled to gain congressional approval for formation of the institute. Some of the key players who worked to establish the institute-Drs. C. Douglas Maynard of Wake Forest University School of Medicine, Shu Chien of the University of California, San Diego, Stanley Baum of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and Robert Nerem of Georgia Institute of Technology-provided some of the history of NIBIB's creation. In addition, a few of NIBIB's unique achievements were highlighted, including the introduction of innovative programs such as the Clinical Resident Research Supplement Awards, the Quantum Projects Initiative and the Nagy New Investigator Awards.

To celebrate Lauterbur's achievements, Dr. Waldo Hinshaw, an MRI pioneer and an early colleague of his, related the key role that Lauterbur played in creating the technology. Hinshaw described him as both a conductor and mentor and noted that he was adept at gathering people to work on the new technology and fostering fellowship among them. Lauterbur understood the importance of blurring the boundaries between disciplines as evidenced by the title of his 2003 Nobel lecture, "All Science Is Interdisciplinary-From Magnetic Moments to Molecules to Men." "He was very good at convincing people that this was a technology that warranted attention," Hinshaw said.

Institute of Medicine president Dr. Harvey Fineberg praised NIBIB's swift start: "This institute has launched in such a remarkable way and opened up avenues for research that really didn't exist." After describing the "health care predicament" that includes a failure to insure all Americans, rising costs of care, deficient quality and safety and workforce shortages, Fineberg noted that "NIBIB has every opportunity to make a huge difference in these areas and to resolve these needs."

Pursuing New Ideas Despite Opposition

Reinforcing the importance of pursuing basic research and promoting novel approaches, Dr. Charles Townes, 1964 Nobel Prize winner for physics, described the path he took to develop the maser and its more famous offspring, the laser. "Really new ideas are resisted by the experts," he said. "You must convince people that basic research is a good investment."

As he refined the theory behind the laser, Townes was told repeatedly he was wasting money and should drop the project. Convinced his idea would work, he continued his research and was rewarded when graduate student James Gordon alerted him that the maser was working. Physics colleagues such as Nobel Laureates Niels Bohr and John von Neumann didn't believe Townes was on the right track, though von Neumann finally acknowledged that a working maser was possible. Even when Townes collaborated with his brother-in-law Arthur Schalow, a researcher at AT&T Bell Laboratories who thought the lab would benefit from the patent, AT&T patent lawyers initially balked because they doubted light could be useful for communications. Townes and Schalow wrote the patent themselves, noting how an optical maser could be used in communications; a patent was granted on behalf of Bell Labs in 1960.

"There was no basic new idea in the maser. All the physics was known before. You have to bring ideas together in the right way," Townes said. He described different lasers and their uses and said he had not foreseen biomedical applications.

Displaying his own creativity and inventiveness, Dr. Ralph Weissleder, director of the Center for Molecular Imaging Research, Harvard Medical School, gave attendees a look into the future of personalized medicine. Referring to NIBIB as the "clock that makes our lab tick," he discussed an emerging optical imaging technique that uses near-infrared light to detect early lung cancers in animals. Because of its high spatial resolution and detection sensitivity, the technique "will have tremendous implications for biomedical research," said Weissleder.

In another technique, multiple biological processes are imaged simultaneously using nanoplatforms with multiple channels. Weissleder and his group have created a nuclear magnetic resonance "lab on a chip. We can multiplex and phenotype rare cells in real time," he said. "In less than a minute we can profile blood." The chip will be able to test for cancer and diabetes and has the potential to be left in tumor beds, providing feedback on therapeutics.

A key challenge facing researchers in regenerative medicine is the inability to expand cells outside the body. Inadequate biomaterials and blood supplies have made it all but impossible to grow viable cells and cell networks.

Over the last 5 years, Dr. Anthony Atala, director of the Institute for Regenerative Medicine, Wake Forest University School of Medicine, has pioneered new methods to successfully grow cells outside the body. This work shows great promise for treating a wide array of disorders. His group has engineered many tissue types and some organs, including tracheas, vaginas and bladders. Atala emphasized that his lab's success is a result of a multidisciplinary approach that encompasses the work of some 400 researchers over 18 years.

Interdisciplinary Success

Successful endeavors in medicine and biology often benefit from input from other disciplines.

Discussing the training of young scientists, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute President Shirley Ann Jackson noted that NIBIB provides the critical linkage of the physical sciences with the biological sciences and highlights the promise of interdisciplinary work. She challenged the audience to "think more broadly about what interdisciplinary research means" and stressed the need to develop modeling techniques to study living systems in real time. "We are a long way from being able to model living systems. It will take intellects of many in different fields" to achieve this, she said.

A panel of four young investigators described their paths to their current positions and noted the importance of NIBIB in filling the gap created by the closing of the Whitaker Foundation. "NIBIB stepped in and saved us from financial ruin," panelist Dr. Joe Tien of Boston University explained, adding that "NIBIB is more willing to fund high-risk work than other sources of research support."

Work across disciplines has meant great progress for NIBIB's first grantees, Drs. James Duncan and Dennis Spencer of Yale University. Their team approach, which combines physics, engineering and clinical applications, has improved epilepsy surgery outcomes. In addition, their work has created new techniques to map the brain's electrical network during surgery and to investigate brain structure, function and biochemistry.

Establishing NIBIB Was Not an Easy Accomplishment

The birth of NIBIB, like many births, was not swift. In the late 1960s, a bill was introduced in Congress to establish a National Institute of Biomedical Engineering, but it went nowhere. The imaging research community lacked a unified voice and an advocacy group. In 1978, the conjoint committee on diagnostic radiology promoted an increase in federal funding for radiological research. "This was the first effort at lobbying by the academic radiological community," said Dr. Stanley Baum, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. The group was the forerunner of the Academy of Radiology Research (ARR), an alliance of 22 professional societies in radiology and imaging. ARR was started in 1995 to increase support for imaging research and work toward establishing a new institute at NIH.

The mid- to late-1990s was a fertile time for cultivating support for an NIH institute dedicated to bioengineering and bioimaging. Then National Cancer Institute director Dr. Richard Klausner was interested in imaging and wanted to explore how it could make an impact on research. Baum and past ARR president Dr. C. Douglas Maynard contacted Dr. Elias Zerhouni and other members of ARR who, along with a group of engineers and scientists, developed a white paper on in vivo molecular and cellular imaging for Klausner. In addition, a congressionally requested study of bioengineering research at NIH led to formation of the Bioengineering Consortium (BECON). The consortium provided a focus for bioengineering at NIH and helped prepare the future of this emerging area.

The final year of the Clinton administration was pivotal in NIBIB's creation. Now strong and speaking with a single voice, the bioengineering community, through ARR and the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE), intensified their efforts. Through letter-writing campaigns, face-to-face meetings with House and Senate members and testimony on the Hill, they were able to get both chambers to pass a bill creating NIBIB by the end of 2000. The President signed the bill into law on Dec. 29, 2000. The transition to a fully operational institute would take another year. NIBIB received its first budget appropriation in February 2002.

The tenacity of several individuals meant success in the quest for an institute dedicated to biomedical imaging and bioengineering. Former ARR Executive Director Edward Nagy, who died unexpectedly in 2006, "was the driving force," in getting NIBIB established, said Baum. Other individuals who played integral roles in the establishment of NIBIB were Maynard, Baum, Drs. Shu Chien, Robert Nerem, Charles Putnam, Nick Bryan and Leonard Holman. "We wouldn't be here if it weren't for the role of the giants who preceded us," noted AIMBE president and National Academy of Engineering member Dr. John Watson.

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