Biomedicine Emerging in APL's Restructuring Plans Ben Walker -------------------------------- Applied Physics Laboratory APL's biomedical program just got a shot in the arm. Director Gary Smith has announced establishment of the APL Institute for Advanced Science and Technology in Medicine. The action builds on the success of APL's 30-year collaboration with the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, and recognizes the growing potential for new business in biomedicine work at APL, estimated to reach $20 million a year in three to five years. Smith said APL will invest approximately $1 million per year for the next three years to develop a potentially self-supporting biomedical and healthcare program. Until recently, APL's biomedical projects have primarily emphasized basic research. "In the new business era we want a more balanced approach, with equal importance placed on engineering-type programs that apply technology to improve medical care," says assistant director for research and exploratory development Vince Pisacane, who heads the new medical institute as well as APL's Independent Research and Development Program and its Biomedical Sciences Thrust Area. "The institute will accelerate our biomedical program and serve as a central coordinating point for marketing and business functions." The new institute will promote collaboration through appointments of personnel from both the laboratory and other university divisions. Pisacane says the appointment process is moving ahead quickly and that in addition to its permanent staff, the institute will draw on the skills of other individuals when appropriate. There are many markets for medical technology. Military services need better, cheaper, faster ways to deliver medical care to their operating forces. In the public health sector, hospital departments must be streamlined to handle larger patient volumes with less personnel and fewer resources. And with patients being released from hospitals sooner than before, new technology is needed for better home care, including monitoring, imaging and diagnostic systems. Biomedicine offers excellent prospects for the laboratory, says APL's new business coordinator, Sam Seymour. "We're continuing our current projects, many of them headed by a part-time principal investigator with a couple of people. We're also going after larger biomedical programs--ones that may require full-time interdepartmental teams that bring in larger revenues," he says. APL is a key player in a consortium of industrial, minority and healthcare partners that has submitted two proposals to the U.S. Army's Medical Research and Materiel Command. Seymour says that for the laboratory approximately $5 million over a five-year period would be available for work in telecommunications and information distribution, plus another $2.6 million in medical modeling and simulation. At the same time, APL is negotiating with the U.S. Air Force Medical Systems Command at Brooks AFB in San Antonio, Texas, to modernize medical equipment aboard aircraft used to transport patients. Such work would include fitting more equipment into the same space and improving its reliability. "When they turn on a heart stimulator they want to know that it'll work," Pisacane says, "and that the plane won't turn left instead." The laboratory's biomedical program, which began formally in 1965, was previewed in June of this year at a retreat in Baltimore. More than 40 representatives from APL, relevant Hopkins divisions, the Hopkins board of trustees and industry met to discuss the future of the laboratory's program. Members of the retreat recommended that APL establish a permanent biomedical and healthcare organization to pursue business opportunities, which they estimated at more than $20 million per year. The Institute for Advanced Science and Technology in Medicine meets this recommendation. As envisioned by the retreat's report, the institute will become a significant business area that will "address important national and military problems, exploit dual-use technologies, and provide challenging and rewarding work for the staff." Sources of funding -------------------------- The laboratory expects to obtain most of its outside funding for biomedical programs from the National Institutes of Health. The Department of Defense, along with other federal and private agencies, would provide the rest. The Johns Hopkins Program for International Education in Reproduction Health may be a strategic ally. The laboratory is collaborating with JHPIEGO on a proposal to the government of Indonesia for an APL-developed telemedicine system to extend the reach of health care to citizens of that country. If successful in Indonesia, the system may be installed in other countries. The Health Care Product Alliance, formed in 1994 under Maryland's Department of Economic and Employment Development, is yet another potential source of money. The alliance, whose members include APL, the Hopkins schools of Medicine and Nursing, and several other state defense companies and medical institutions, provides funds to develop innovative health-care products for the civilian marketplace. Brent Bargeron of the research center is APL's product coordinator for the alliance. He says two projects show promise for alliance support: a noninvasive system to determine cardiac output and a fetal heart monitor that can obtain an EKG from the fetus without penetrating the sac. "These noninvasive techniques allow doctors to diagnosis certain types of illness without resorting to surgery," says Pisacane. He points out that the current method of obtaining a fetal EKG requires placing an electrode on the baby's scalp, which risks infection and causes the baby to be born within 24 hours. Products that have commercial potential--such as a bone replacement implant now under development in the Technical Services Department--are attracting funds from the Triad Investors Corp. of Blacksburg, Va. Triad's University Partners Portfolio provides capital for "outstanding technologies developed at either Virginia Tech or the Johns Hopkins Institutions." Funding for proposed biomedical projects is also available through the laboratory's Independent Research and Development Program, which provides seed money to develop APL-initiated products and services of potential use to the government. A key thrust area within IRAD, Biomedical Sciences is organized into three projects: Medical Informatics and Health Care, headed by Steve Yanek of the Fleet Systems Department; Biomedical Instrumentation, under Harvey Ko of the Submarine Technology Department; and Biomedical Research, headed by Dick Farrell of the Director's Office. And the research center has its own IRAD funds to back projects proposed by members of the center. Current projects --------------------------- For 30 years, APL's collaborative biomedical program has developed more than 100 specialized medical devices, including rechargeable pacemakers, implantable medication-dispensing systems, a nonreusable syringe and an ingestible "pill" that transmits core body temperature and other vital data to help safeguard the lives of such people as firefighters, ocean divers and elderly hospital patients. APL's current biomedical projects build on this legacy, reaching into virtually every medical domain. Present work includes studies of neurophysiological and psychophysical pain, cataracts, corneal damage from infrared radiation and ocular health hazards from millimeter wave exposures. APL's biomedical researchers are developing a microscopy technique for genetic mapping for early detection of a predisposition to develop cancer, techniques to correlate the motions of prostate cells and the distribution of DNA with prostate cancer prognosis, a minimally invasive laser method for clearing obstructions in shunts placed in the brains of hydrocephalic patients, an algorithm and software for automated detection of early breast cancer in mammograms, and a telemedicine system providing real-time, multimedia medical consultation over long distances. First-time trials of the system, just completed during a six-month deployment of the USS Abraham Lincoln Battle Group, were successful. The institute is also hoping to make a contribution in the national effort to map the human genome, which would open the door to understanding and curing such diseases as cancer and AIDS. Using IRAD funds, laboratory researchers are developing new technologies to speed the time needed to sequence the human genome. With success in this preliminary effort, APL would team with Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions in a proposal to NIH, which oversees the genome mapping program. In many ways, APL's rejuvenated biomedical program is an example of the laboratory's multipronged thrust to capture new business. According to Pisacane, the prognosis is good.
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