MEDx Reflects: Exploring the medicine and engineering intersection with George Truskey

George Truskey, Ph.D., is a professor of biomedical engineering (BME) and senior associate dean in the Pratt School of Engineering. His research interests focus on the effect of physical forces on the function of vascular cells and skeletal muscle, cell adhesion, and the design of engineering tissues. As an affiliated faculty member of MEDx, Truskey sees the importance of collaboration between clinical care, basic-science research and engineering. 

Why are you interested in research at the intersection of medicine and engineering?

Since I’m a faculty member in biomedical engineering, this is the nature of my research. I’ve been interested in such questions since I first learned about the field as a high school senior in the 1970s. I find the work to be a nice blend of engineering, physical sciences, biology and clinical issues that can ultimately advance patient care and wellness. Even more exciting is that these interactions between medicine and engineering have uncovered new biology and new approaches to treat disease.

How are you pursuing this intersection within your department or within your specific projects?

All of my research projects involve collaborations with a clinical faculty member or biomedical scientist. For instance, I work with professors Nenad Bursac, William Kraus (Medicine, Cardiology), Kim Huffman (Medicine, Rheumatology and Immunology), Dee Gunn (Medicine, Cardiology) and Tim Koves (Medicine) to use an engineered human muscle to model rheumatoid arthritis and inflammation. 

Another project involves a collaboration with a cell biologist at the University of Maryland, Dr. Kan Cao, to use our engineered human blood vessels to model the pathology of the accelerated aging disease progeria and test potential therapies.

How can you see the intersection between research, medicine and engineering playing out at Duke over the next few years?

One of the reasons MEDx was established was to facilitate the interactions among clinicians, basic biomedical scientists and bioengineers. There are so many untapped opportunities, but MEDx has been helpful in facilitating these exchanges. One of the challenges is that School of Medicine faculty websites provide little or no information about research; expanding the information available and the web content would be helpful. In addition, efforts to bring together investigators around specific topics will continue to be important. Further, expanding the scope beyond engineering to the natural and computational sciences in Arts and Sciences is important as well.

Why do you think this intersection is important for Duke?

Research is becoming more interdisciplinary and engineering approaches are growing in importance in addressing basic and applied research questions, which is one of the reasons why MEDx was formed. Such collaborative and funded projects represented one of the fastest growing research areas in the School of Medicine. MEDx is taking advantage of something that Duke already does well and making it easier to achieve.

Do you feel there is a place for interdisciplinary training and education within the School of Medicine and Pratt?

Yes, interdisciplinary training is very important. The training that arises is not intended to turn a biomedical researcher into an engineer or vice versa, but to develop a conceptual knowledge of the other field to understand how each of the disciplines approaches a problem, what questions they ask, and how each discipline can contribute to a solution.

There are several different flavors currently, but it is usually at the doctoral level. We have programs like University Program in Genetics and Genomics and Computational Biology and Bioinformatics that provide interdisciplinary training and degrees. The Center for Biomolecular and Tissue Engineering offers a certificate and training grant, but students receive their degrees from their home departments or program. An opportunity for the future is new training in regenerative biology and medicine that Regeneration Next Initiative may spearhead. 

What is your vision for the future for MEDx and in Biomedical Engineering?

BME faculty have active participants in MEDx and I expect that will continue. While collaborations have developed naturally for a long time, we have benefited by the new opportunities and openness offered by MEDx.