Exploring the frontiers of medical engineering innovation

Two Texas A&M professors combine engineering and medical research to create new therapies
February 21, 2018

Throughout history, we have seen that combining medical sciences with engineering can create transformative innovations. Stents keep arteries open, medical imaging technologies assist with cancer diagnosis and nanotechnologies deliver drugs on a cellular level—each one of these innovations went through a long and complicated process before ever reaching patients. Texas A&M is leveraging the expertise of faculty in the College of Medicine and the College of Engineering, by building bridges for collaboration and offering help that can fast-track innovation with the hope of reaching patients more quickly.

In 2008, Robert C. Alaniz, PhD, research assistant professor at Texas A&M College of Medicine, began a collaboration with Arul Jayaraman, PhD, professor at the College of Engineering. Alaniz is an immunologist by training, while Jayaraman is a chemical engineer.

Alaniz studies the human microbiome, tiny organisms in body that he calls “the medicine cabinet in our bodies.” Together, Alaniz and Jayaraman have led the new and burgeoning field of “functional microbiota metabolomics” to study chemicals produced by the microbiota and they’re figuring out how to harness these chemicals to help treat some of the deadliest and widespread diseases in the United States.

In conducting their integrated biomedicine-engineering research, Alaniz and Jayaraman have been funded by the NSF and NIH since beginning their collaboration. Their end goal is to translate these compounds that the microbiota naturally produce into therapeutics that treat diseases such as obesity, Type 2 diabetes, arthritis, infectious disease and cancer.

“What Dr. Jayaraman and I realize is that now and in the future, the most challenging and impactful questions in science cannot be answered by a single scientific discipline—we must forge innovative interdisciplinary research alliances that synergize for the next generation of discoveries,” Alaniz said. “We have successfully collaborated on novel and significant research efforts to reveal discoveries impossible to uncover alone.”

Some of their discoveries include published research describing a new class of metabolites made by the microbiota, how microbiota metabolites strengthen the gastrointestinal tract lining and prevent drug-induced GI tract ulceration and inflammation. Newer research indicates that FB-10-A, a compound produced by the microbiota of the gut, may be as good as metformin—the leading anti-diabetic drug—in treating diabetes. In another recent paper in the journal PLOS One, the duo reported that a microbiota metabolite may help reduce the likelihood of salmonella infection.

“We are both reductionists and want to understand the mechanisms of action,” Jayaraman said. “Yet, we bring different expertise and training, which gives us a broad outlook on problems. I primarily work on the microbial aspects, while Dr. Alaniz works on the immunological aspects. Since our research straddles both fields, we complement each other nicely.”

Alaniz and Jayaraman realized that it takes more than scientific research to move potential new therapies from the lab to patients. That’s where Texas A&M’s Office of Technology Translation came into the picture, helping them with the commercialization process and targeting customer segments, as well as handling patent and contract strategies, targeting product profiles and clinical development plans.

With encouragement from the Office of Technology Translation, both professors applied for and were accepted into the Medical Technology Lean Start Up course, an eight-week life sciences program offered through National Science Foundation I-Corps program. The program trains faculty members who have promising research on how to commercialize their technology, essentially providing them with the curriculum, mentors and resources needed to understand their technology from a commercialization perspective, identify who their customer is, and then ultimately map out their commercialization before they actually go through it.

The program helped Alaniz and Jayaraman with their start-up company, Fortis Biosciences Inc., to launch new medical compounds into the market. They filed three patents in the last year, with more to come. While the process is ongoing, Alaniz has learned a key lesson from this: We are only as successful as those around us.

“Translational research is truly a team endeavor,” Alaniz said. “Alone, I can only do so much. Through joint research with my chemical engineering colleague, and with the help of entrepreneurial and translational technology subject-matter experts, we have the best chance of moving our project through the pipeline and bringing life-saving therapies to patients in need.”

— Tamim Choudhury

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