The Biomedical Engineering Program, which was launched last fall by the University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering, is quickly attaining a full staff with director Matt Franchek naming Ralph Metcalfe and Peter Vekilov as deputy directors for the program. Franchek, who has been recognized by the American Society of Mechanical Engineering Dynamic Systems and funded by the National Science Foundation, serves as the mechanical engineering chairman.
“I’ve been working on this program since last spring. I was involved in helping set it up and preparing the documents to get it approved by the state,” Metcalfe said. “I’m very excited about the potential for the program. Houston is the home of the largest medical center in the world.”
Both men are currently working on projects that deal with serious human medical conditions. The Bulgarian-born Vekilov, who worked in both Bulgaria and Japan before practicing science and education in the United States, has been featured in Science magazine for his work with sickle cell anemia, a disease that is denoted by sickle-shaped red blood cells and accompanied by sporadic pain.
“My focus is phase transition in protein solutions. We all consist of several billion or zillion bags of protein solution. We want protein to stay in soluble form, but sometimes other phases like liquids, gels and crystals form and cause diseases such as eye cataracts, sickle cell anemia, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s,” Vekilov said. “In order to prevent this, we focus on the physical process of the protein. We have found the fundamentals and have recently begun testing the applicability of our research to sickle cell anemia hemoglobin polymers.”
Metcalfe came to the university in 1987 and has taught both mechanical engineering and mathematics. A graduate of the University of Washington, Metcalfe received his masters and Ph.D. from M.I.T before working as a research scientist at Flow Research Company. Currently, Metcalfe’s research is centered on hemodynamics: the fluid dynamics of blood flow.
“Of an estimated five million people in the United States with congestive heart failure, many will have significantly shortened lifespan.” Metcalfe said. “Researchers are developing new mechanical devices to replace the heart or assist it with the pumping of blood. We have been studying how such devices can change blood flow in ways that can be both beneficial and detrimental to a patient’s health. By eliminating the detrimental effects, there is a possibility that such devices can allow the heart to heal. This is one of the most exciting potential prospects because it could impact so many patients and give them relief from this severe disease.”