CULLEN COLLEGE OF ENGINEERING

University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering

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UH Cullen College of Engineering Forging New Relationships with Texas Medical Center Institutions in Biotechnology Research

By: 

Brian Allen

Two recent meetings between academic leaders at the Texas Medical Center and the University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering have laid the foundation for an unprecedented new relationship between engineering and medicine in Houston.

Dean Raymond W. Flumerfelt joined John Mendelsohn, president of The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, and James T. Willerson, president of the UT Health Science Center at Houston, as the three academic leaders revealed their vision of the advancement of biotechnology at a meeting on the BioTexas Research Park Initiative.

The meeting, held at the new Denton A. Cooley Building at the Texas Heart Institute, was designed to bring key academic leaders together with the CEO of General Electric Medical Systems, Joseph Hogan, and other key corporate leaders to share information on capabilities and plans for future biotechnology research in Houston's proposed new Biotechnology Research Park.

Other speakers at the meeting included Rice University's Nobel Prize winning physics professor, Richard Smalley; UT Health Science Center's vice president of biotechnology, S. Ward Cascells; and UH's world renowned expert in superconductivity, Paul Chu.

Flumerfelt stressed the good working relationship between the UH Cullen College of Engineering and the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, as he emphasized UH's intention to become deeply involved with bioengineering projects at the new park.

"We think these activities are exciting, they're important and they're rewarding," Flumerfelt says."We're looking forward to being a partner in the advancement of these new technologies."

Willerson, who is not only the president of the UT-Houston Health Science Center but also director of cardiology at the Texas Heart Institute, sees UH as a major partner with the Texas Medical Center institutions. "There's a wide open opportunity here for a partnership between GE, The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, the University of Texas Health Science Center, Rice, the University of Houston and other medical center institutions," Willerson says.

A second meeting organized by Cullen College of Engineering's David Nghiem, assistant dean of outreach education and research and director of the Telecom Center, brought together 14 researchers from the UT Health Science Center and several UH faculty members, including Stuart Long, Steven Pei, John Glover, Richard Willson, Ramanan Krishnamoorti, Jarek Wosik, Demetre Economou and others.

Also attending and addressing the attendees was Arthur C. Vailas, vice chancellor for research and intellectual property management for the UH System and vice president for research at UH. Vailas expressed his appreciation for the efforts of the engineering faculty and stressed the university's support for collaborative research with medical center institutions.

"The University of Houston each year is incrementally making great strides in moving a concentration of sciences to the medical center for the advancement of technology and knowledge," Vailas says. "I believe that this is the future, and the administration is very committed to this endeavor."

The meeting focused on the problem of vulnerable plaque, which cardiologists now believe to be the triggering mechanism behind most heart attacks and strokes. Morteza Naghavi, director of the UT's Center for Vulnerable Plaque Research, delivered a detailed presentation on the scope of the problem. He offered statistics indicating vulnerable plaque is the world's leading cause of death, especially premature death between the ages of 50 and 65.

Developing early detection is the primary goal of the research center, according to Naghavi. What makes detection so pivotal is the absence of warning signs and the deadly consequences of a rupture. In more than half the cases of vulnerable plaque, the first symptom is sudden death.

Using a revolutionary approach involving electromagnetics, UH's Nghiem has developed a patentable technology that may make early detection, both invasive and non-invasive, a reality. Meanwhile, other UH engineers, many of whom made presentations at the meeting, are also working on ideas to address the problem of detection, and, eventually, of treatment as well.

"We think this meeting is the beginning of something that's long overdue at the college," says Nghiem. "We're breaking new ground here, and we expect this kind of effort to generate much stronger ties with the University of Texas Houston Health Science and to other TMC institutions."

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