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Joint Biomedical Engineering Program Bridges Campuses on Tobacco Road

Xconomy Raleigh-Durham — 

Some scientists wait years to see their research resonate with patients. The drug delivery research of Zhen Gu, a biomedical engineering professor at NC State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is still early but he sees diabetics express interest in his work every day.

One of Gu’s projects is a “smart” insulin patch covered with microneedles. In addition to storing microscopic amounts of insulin, these tiny needles also respond to a patient’s glucose levels, releasing their payload when blood sugar gets too high. This smart patch has only been tested in mice, and human testing may be years away. But if it works, diabetics wouldn’t need syringes to administer insulin. Since publishing the research, Gu says he receives daily e-mails from diabetics asking about clinical trials.

Gu’s smart insulin patch is one of a number of technologies in development at the joint biomedical engineering department at NC State and UNC. Beyond teaching biomedical engineering, the program also pursues research with potential applications in drug delivery, regenerative medicine, and medical imaging. Nancy Allbritton, chair of the department, says the research is an effort to keep pace with industry trends bridging medicine and engineering.

“If you’re looking at the best and the biggest science happening right now, it’s at the interface of disciplines,” she says.

It’s an interface where NC State and UNC have played for years, though not always as partners. UNC has one of North Carolina’s four medical schools, but few engineering courses. NC State has an engineering school and a veterinary school, but no medical school. In 2003, the universities agreed to form a joint biomedical engineering program permitting graduate students to take classes at both schools toward a biomedical engineering degree awarded by both universities. Last year, the universities expanded the program to undergraduates. At commencement ceremonies this weekend, the program will award its first undergraduate degrees in biomedical engineering.

Allbritton says the joint program’s expansion comes amid growing industry demand for biomedical engineers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that biomedical engineering jobs will grow 23 percent between 2014 and 2024, compared to the 7 percent average growth rate for all other occupations. California and Massachusetts are the top two states employing biomedical engineers, according to federal figures. Indiana and Minnesota follow, reflecting the medical device industry’s strong presence in both states. While the pharma industry eclipses medical devices in North Carolina, Allbritton says the growing overlap between drugs and devices, and the strong life sciences industry presence in nearby Research Triangle Park, creates an opportunity for the two universities to funnel graduates into local companies rather than sending biomedical engineers out of state.

UNC and NC State can’t claim a monopoly on biomedical engineering education in North Carolina. A short drive away, Duke University’s biomedical engineering department marries the strengths of its engineering and medical schools. Wake Forest University’s joint biomedical engineering program crosses state borders in a partnership with Virginia Tech.

Allbritton says NC State/UNC’s joint program can stand out by emphasizing entrepreneurship. For example, a private $500,000 donation supports … Next Page »

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