Personalized medicine aims to change the treatment of deadly diseases

Researchers at the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences (SBES) are offering good news in the battle against deadly diseases.

Their good news comes in the form of hope from new early detection methods and individual assessment technologies.

New technology is critical to further improving the survival rate of cancer and other life-threatening illnesses. A handful of medical specialists argue that it makes sense to use research money to figure out how to diagnose and stop disease at an early stage rather than pour dollars into new drugs that might add only a few months to a patient’s life.

Their viewpoint is gaining traction.


Cindy Hatfield (right) and Chris Wyatt (left) working in the lab Cindy Hatfield (right) and Chris Wyatt (left) working in the lab

Today's new technology is using early detection methods and helping multitudes of patients, but the procedures can be intrusive and uncomfortable, or worse, inaccurate.

The joint venture integrates the capabilities of Virginia Tech's College of Engineering, the Wake Forest University School of Medicine, and the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. Faculty members are focusing on imaging and medical physics, as well as biomechanics and cell and tissue engineering. Their work aims to improve on current new technology.

Enhanced, quicker, and more relevant images

Chris Wyatt, a faculty member in both Virginia Tech’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and SBES, is attempting to provide the medical community with enhanced, quicker, and more relevant images of the human body.

The benefits could include easier disease detection, lower medical costs, and new treatments.


Wyatt with virtual imaging examples on his computer Wyatt with virtual imaging examples on his computer

New imaging techniques have the invaluable potential to greatly extend the reach of medical research beyond detecting the anatomical presence of the disease. By employing applied engineering technologies, more intensive study of diseases at the cellular level will be possible. In turn, this greater understanding of the physiology of an illness will lead to more targeted treatments.

As for diagnosis, it’s doubtful one could find a patient who would prefer a current, invasive procedure to a virtual one. If early detection comes without the uncomfortable, hours-long process, chances are the percentage of patients getting the test would increase dramatically.

Wyatt and other researchers in SBES, part of Virginia Tech’s Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science, are eagerly working to identify the technologies needed for a specific individual’s assessment. 

A more personalized medicine

Joseph Yue Wang, another member of the electrical and computer engineering department and SBES, says he dreams of a more personalized medicine in which doctors can precisely determine how a patient’s cancer will behave.

"Personalized medicine requires a quantitative- plus-molecular equation in which computational intelligence tools can play a major role," says Wang.

Researchers studying disease at molecular levels need the analytical skills of engineers to aid in both discovery and understanding of biological systems, says Wang, who currently leads a $5.5 million research effort to improve the outcome for breast cancer patients.

For any single disease, thousands of genes and proteins that interact with each other are studied and tested. These numbers produce “vast amounts of data that needs to be interpreted and analyzed so that the components involved with diseases can be isolated and identified,” says Wang, who currently participates in two National Institutes of Health (NIH) Center of Excellence projects, one Department of Defense Center of Excellence project, and one NIH Cancer Bioinformatics Grid project.


Wang (top) and an image of a human mammary cell (bottom) Wang (top) and an image of a human mammary cell (bottom)

The data processing and manipulation Wang is referring to typically falls under the bioinformatics field, where computational engineers and computer scientists are now working.

Systems biology

A newer field, called systems biology, is also emerging.

It requires modeling and systems engineering skills based on a solid mathematical and theoretical background, Wang says.

The completion of the human genome project, which identified and mapped every gene in the human body, has provided a foundation for the field, according to Wang.

Using this foundation and research efforts, SBES engineers like Wang are working to provide physicians with the tools to determine such things as which cancers identified through screening should be treated and which are best left untreated.

They should also be able to help identify individuals who are at risk for specific cancers and require routine testing or lifestyle modification. And, they should be able to assess treatment using biological, chemical, and genetic markers in addition to anatomical measures to provide improved results and reduce fatalities.

From the homepage

    Graphic illustration by VT student

The illustration on the homepage was created by visual design and communication student Charles Wood as part of an assignment in Professor Bob Fields' intermediate graphic design class.

New imaging

    MicroCT scanner used for computational imaging research

MicroCT scanners, used for computational imaging research, help biomedical researchers see like never before.

The scanner helps researchers' studies ranging from birth defects caused by diabetes to bone strength and tissue engineering.

"The machine is exeellent at imaging hard tissue," says Wyatt. "We can see the very fine structure of bones — even the micro st

ructure or matrix of the bone."

Spotlight Archive

Look through previous Spotlight stories

Access the archives