Basement to Bench to Bedside

It should have been enough for Dr. Wilbur Lam that he was a physician specialized in pediatric hematology and oncology. But Lam couldn’t shake his concern about the growing gap between the technologies in the lab and those in clinical practices.

“I realized that a lot of the existing medical technology was 30 or 40 years old,” he said. “And I realized that in order to bring the best of the new technologies in faster, there had to be someone who was trained in both.”

And as microtechnology and nanoscience expanded, Lam sensed a missing link in the common phrase “bench to bedside.” He realized there was a real need for biomedical engineers to be a key part of the clinical solution. Or as he says, diagnostic tools or treatment that evolve from “basement to bench to bedside.”

After all, biomedical engineers often are the high-tech tinkerers of this century – often creating from scratch the tools that enable researchers to ask questions that were  previously not even technologically feasible.

Lam decided he needed wanted to be part of the bridge between the scientific and clinical communities, pursuing a doctorate in biomedical engineering from UCSF/UC Berkeley. That led to a trek to the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and Georgia Technology Institute—where both places understood his belief that the best medicine comes from the best collaboration of multiple disciplines.

“This is the one hub in the United States with a huge growing research children’s hospital that has not only a strong emphasis on pediatric hematology and oncology, but also has a strong push to bring nanoscience into the medical field.”

Here, in Atlanta, he could see his ideation become a reality, through the collaboration of the Aflac Cancer Center of Children’s with the Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University.

Typically, he said, as people become more compartmentalized and specialized, they often “lose touch” with research from other fields, preventing effective interdisciplinary collaboration. “They learn more and more about less and less,” he said.

But because of the Aflac Cancer Center’s multi-disciplinary approach, no one is allowed to become too much of an outlander. “I think ‘silo issues’ are less prevalent here,” he said. “Everyone is very collegial, very supportive and very nice. Everyone is working toward common goals.”

The number one goal: to get technology out of the lab and into doctors’ and patients’ hands faster. Laughing, he says—as he thinks about how much time is spent with creating “gadgets”—that here in Atlanta, “it’s really more of moving technology from the basement to the bench to the bedside.”

For example:

  • Artificial blood vessels: Lam and his team are developing “fake” blood vessels using microchip technology to study how blood and blood vessel interact with each other in health and disease. They are currently translating that “blood vessel-on-a-chip” to a biodegradable material that could be grafted onto diseased organs. “We’re talking about blood vessels about 100 times thinner than a hair,” he said. “But we can make a whole network of these and then apply it like a patch.” He foresees a time where these blood vessels could be used to either replace dead tissue caused by injury or replacing tissue that has died because of a lack of circulation.
  • Remote diagnosis of ear infections: With this ailment being one of the most common reasons for clogged emergency rooms, Lam’s team is working on modifying smartphone technology that would allow parents to determine whether their child has an ear infection.
  • Patient-operated devices for monitoring health: From sickle cell disease to cancer, Lam’s team is developing cell phone applications that make it easier for patients—and their doctors—to monitor and track their own disease. For third world countries, Lam is working on novel approaches with cell phones that would allow doctors to diagnose in a highly portable setting. Here at home, his team is developing microchip technology—also through cell phones - that would allow chemotherapy patients to check their blood levels, without having to make a visit into a clinic or doctor’s office. “This is a big deal for them,” Lam said. “It allows them to do one more thing at home, instead of having to travel. Which is not exactly fun when you’re not feeling well.”

Molecules—like the humans who are comprised of them—have to follow the laws of science, and there are plenty of limitations, Lam said. Therefore, the most productive nanoscience research current builds on novel techniques developed by existing fields such as synthetic chemistry and electrical engineering. But as we learn more about the building blocks of life, it’s also clear that nanoscience—paired with clinical experience —could be key in developing fantastic hands-on tools for medicine.

“We have a much better sense of the molecular aspects of medicine now,” he said. “And that’s going to lead us to much better tools for diagnosing, monitoring and curing illness.”