From CASE Reports, Vol. 14,1 (February 1999)


Public, Private Institutions Unite in Biomedical Alliance

“Innovations in medical technology and medical science are going to have a significant, positive effect on the economy in Connecticut,” predicts CASE member Joseph D. Bronzino, the Vernon Roosa Professor of Applied Science at Trinity College and director of BEACON (Biomedical Engineering Alliance for Central Connecticut). “And BEACON is going to be one of the forces driving those innovations in Connecticut universities and companies.”

BEACON is a collaborative arrangement among public and private institutions in Connecticut, including Trinity College, the University of Hartford, the University of Connecticut (UConn), and the University of Connecticut Health Center (UCHC). The goals of BEACON include: 1) enhancing educational opportunities in biomedical engineering; 2) recruiting new faculty and developing collaborative biomedical engineering efforts between academic institutions and industry in the fields of biomechanics and biosensors/bioinstrumentation; and 3) establishing an industrial liaison and facilitating medical technology transfer within the state.

“BEACON has been in existence since January, 1997, and things are moving along very well,” says Bronzino. “We are very happy with the progress we’ve made. BEACON was established using a 3-year, $1 million award from the Whitaker Foundation, and we now have additional commitments to keep the program solvent after January 1, 2000, when the Whitaker money is gone.”

“A major goal of BEACON was to create a multi-institutional and industrial effort to enhance the educational opportunities of biomedical engineering students,” explains Bronzino. During the first year of BEACON’s existence, he notes, biomedical engineering courses from member institutions were integrated into a coordinated list of course offerings for the region, eliminating redundancies and improving the quality of the individual courses. Several new courses were also initiated, including physiological systems, optics and lasers in medicine, biosensors, and drug discovery and delivery. Masters and doctoral degrees in biomedical engineering are offered through UConn, and under the auspices of BEACON, a core curriculum of courses has been designed for these degrees.

“We are particularly excited about our introduction to drug discovery and delivery course, which is being offered the spring 1999 semester,” says Bronzino. “The state of Connecticut has a significant biotechnology and pharmaceutical base, with an emphasis on drug design and delivery, but there is no course offered through any of the member institutions that combines the disciplines of pharmacology—drug discovery—and chemical engineering—drug delivery. The new introduction to drug discovery and delivery course is the first step in designing a curriculum to meet the needs of the biotechnology companies in the state. We think that this course will prove invaluable to students looking for careers in industry.”

“The success of any program like this is often determined by how many students participate,” says Bronzino. “And enrollment has increased every semester since the inception of this program—from 64 in the fall of 1997, to 74 in the spring of 1998, to 97 in the fall of 1998. …that demonstrates the quality of the teaching as well as the practical value of these courses.”

It is not just students at the participating universities that are taking these courses, according to Bronzino. “We offer many of our courses in the evening, in Hartford, to make it convenient for people working in industry to participate,” he explains. “Some of these people may benefit from learning for their current jobs, and some may use their new knowledge to switch fields. United Technologies uses the phrase ‘learning for competitive advantage.’ I think this is a great way to describe what we’re offering.”

“The BEACON model is catching on,” claims Bronzino. Indeed, the model has been adopted by the emerging International Collaborative Biomedical Engineering Union in Southern Germany (Southern Germany BME Union), which includes the University of Freiberg Medical School, the University of Stuttgart, and the University of Applied Sciences at Furtwangen and Sigmaringen. Herbert Maier-Lenz, a clinical pharmacologist, is the director of the German effort and has collaborated with BEACON faculty to design an appropriate curriculum that will enable students in Germany to obtain bachelors, masters, and doctoral degrees in biomedical engineering. An exchange program has also been instituted, which will allow student and faculty exchanges between BEACON and the Southern Germany BME Union.

“We’re really looking forward to the exchange program, which will be implemented this year,” says Bronzino. “And we think it will be popular. No extra tuition will be charged, and the curriculum has been designed so that students will not lose any time in meeting the requirements for their major.”

“Improving the educational opportunities for students in biomedical engineering is, however, only one of BEACON’s goals,” he continues. “Another is to forge strong, collaborative relationships between academia and industry. During 1998 we made great progress in that regard.”

During the first six months of 1998, Bronzino visited chief executive officers and research scientists in many of the state’s medical device and biotechnology companies. “We needed to know how BEACON could be helpful to each company,” he explains. “And the best way to do that was to go out there and ask them.”

“I learned a lot during those visits,” says Bronzino, “But three observations really stood out: 1) There is a shortage of trained workers in Connecticut right now, and companies have to go out of the state to hire qualified people; 2) companies would be happy to help in training workers; and 3) companies would like to collaborate with people in academia who might be able to help with some problems that the companies are having.”

As a result of Bronzino’s meetings with representatives from industry, BEACON established an industrial internship program with several companies. Two companies, Corometrics, in Meriden, and Neurogen, in Branford, are the first to participate. The program will be open to undergraduates at the end of their junior and senior years, as well as graduate students.

“I see this as a win-win opportunity,” says Bronzino. “The students win, by getting real-world experience before graduating, which should be enormously helpful when they hit the job market. The companies win, by having access to a trained pool of potential employees. They get an early look at candidates and how they work. That should make recruiting go more quickly.”

“The companies are continuously concerned about intellectual property rights,” says Bronzino. “Who would own the rights to things discovered or developed by students working in their laboratories? We have worked out a good compromise that appears to satisfy everyone. The companies will be funding the research and paying the students, and so the companies will basically own the intellectual property rights for the work students do under their direction. At this point, we just want to facilitate collaborative programs.”

The industrial internship program, according to Bronzino, uses as a model the clinical engineering program that Trinity College has had with area hospitals. “We have had a clinical engineering program for about 25 years now, and it’s been very successful,” says Bronzino. “In this program, students work 25 to 30 hours a week at the hospital for two years and take classes in the evening. It is a small, high-quality program from which four or five students graduate every year. We were able to leverage our experience with that program to smooth over the small sticking points with the industrial internship program.”

“To support our industrial liaison efforts, we have instituted corporate sponsorships,” Bronzino explains. “We’re asking for a financial commitment from each sponsor, which would go towards keeping BEACON operational after the Whitaker funding runs out. So far we have commitments from Corometrics and Kendall Health Care Products, and are in the process of talking with six or seven other companies.”

Bronzino sees BEACON as having a large role in facilitating other collaborative arrangements between the universities and industry. As well as the internships for students, plans are underway for BEACON to provide leave opportunities for faculty members to work in industry and to promote the creation of collaborative research teams to pursue innovative ideas. In addition, BEACON would provide guidance for faculty regarding industry interests and contracts.

BEACON is also building bridges with other centers and organizations interested in biomedical research and development, including the Biomaterials and Medical Imaging Center at the University of Connecticut Health Center, the Biotechnology Center at the University of Connecticut, and the Biomedical Engineering Program at Yale University.

“Our ultimate goal is be recognized as the focal point of biomedical engineering activities in the state of Connecticut,” says Bronzino. These activities include a continued liaison with the Connecticut Technology Council (CTC) regarding the establishment of an effective industrial internship program in the state, with Connecticut United for Research Excellence (CURE) to include biomedical engineering in the state’s initiatives on biotechnology, with the Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering (CASE) regarding use of academic and industrial resources in the field of biomedical engineering to address state legislative inquiries, and with the State Board of Higher Education regarding biomedical engineering education.

Bronzino is enthusiastic about the future of BEACON and biomedical engineering in Connecticut. “Timing is everything,” he says. “The timing for collaboration and cooperation between the public and private sectors is now. With the kind of collaboration that is possible through BEACON, the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts. We recognize the value of this type of cooperative effort in bringing together academics from different institutions, both public and private, as well as and with their industrial colleagues. What will come out of this is jobs, jobs, and more jobs. When industry and academia are comfortable with each other, they will work together on joint projects, new students will come to the state, and out of the renewed energy, new products will flow, and so will jobs.” — Lisa Christenson, science writer

Biosensors Focus of Symposium

The first BEACON-sponsored symposium, "Biosensors", was held on October 2, 1998 at Trinity College in Hartford. The goal of this symposium was to stimulate interest and promote increased activity in the development of new biosensors. More than 130 people attended the event, which consisted of an academic panel that provided an in-depth discussion about several basic areas of promising research, an industrial panel that described successful examples of biosensor product development, and a government panel that presented an overview of funding opportunities for work in this area.

The morning academic panel focused on the opportunities and challenges for biosensor development, including advances in potentiometric, optical, and enzyme-based (amperiometric) sensors for in vitro analyses. Speakers described research activities in the areas of enzyme-based immunosensors, acoustic wave sensors, glucose sensors, and devices for in vivo sensing in short and long-term frames, such as those that would simultaneously monitor pH, pK*, and lactate.

The afternoon industrial panel focused on the future of sensors. Speakers described how biosensors could be used to shorten the drug discovery process; as screening tools for the discovery of therapeutic drugs; and in microbiological assays, in vitro toxicology testing, and clinical research applications.

The symposium concluded with a panel that addressed the issues of federal and state support for biosensor research and development. Participants noted some of the reasons why commercialization of sensor technologies has lagged behind research, including cost, stability, and sensitivity. Other issues include market size and justification, development cost, and ease of manufacture. In addition, development cycles are still long many of the necessary materials are not well understood; and technology transfer, funding, and establishment of necessary interdisciplinary partnerships are still barriers to successful commercialization of sensors.

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