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Biosciences - Partnerships Range from Robotics to Health Care

Story by Ann Carney. Photos by Jason Marsh.

It's the kind of collaboration that will change lives, develop new medical treatments and advance cures for disabling conditions and diseases. It will also promote economic development, facilitate the commercialization of discoveries and propel the state into its rightful place in science and technology. And it's happening right here at the University of South Florida.

USF's new Center of Excellence in Bioengineering and Life Sciences brings together an arsenal of multidisciplinary strengths and a cluster of more than 370 regional medical manufacturing companies for the development and commercialization of innovative products and technologies that will improve lives and may eventually change the face of healthcare.

But that's not all. The new Center of Excellence will create jobs, attract world-class talent, generate new research dollars and enhance classroom learning at all levels.

Sound far-fetched? USF is combining talents of engineers and physician/researchers to address health care problems that plague millions of Americans. Engineers are refining incredible robots and robot devices that can help people with physical mobility challenges -- from arthritis to paralysis -- have new-found independence. Robot arms that can be mounted on a wheelchair can manipulate your keys and unlock a door, turn the knob and push open the door. Tiny "marsupial" robots can fetch objects out of reach. These innovations can dramatically change the lives of the aging and disabled who struggle to bend down, twist and turn, reach high and manipulate small objects.

USF engineers are refining incredible robots and robot devices that can help people with physical mobility challenges.But the future is even more promising, as USF medical researchers work to develop innovative cells that can actually repair damaged tissue-like skin and even brain and nerve cells. "The aim is to help people with disabilities manage their mobility challenges in the short term until we can develop cures that fully restore their ability to stand, walk or maneuver. This is about a vision to dramatically improve people's lives," says Dr. Carl Carlucci, executive vice president for USF.

"There is a real match between the university's strengths and what we can do in the community in an area where we have a number of successful research initiatives," says Carlucci. "The new Center of Excellence is directly aligned with the university's strategic plan. It brings a focus to our research energies where we have a competitive advantage."

The rationale is simple. USF's renowned medical school, outstanding engineering program and basic science research activities combined with a history of success in interdisciplinary collaboration, provides a unique combination of strengths. At the intersection of those strengths lies bioengineering and the life sciences.

Moreover, the Tampa Bay area is home to one of the nation's largest clusters of medical products companies, offering the industry infrastructure that is vital to a successful alliance between university research and business. Though not widely known, this medical products cluster contributes more than 51,000 jobs and $5 billion to the Tampa Bay region.

"This is a global industry with a positive economic impact," says Geary Havran, president of Tampa Bay-based NDH Medical Inc. and president of the Florida Medical Manufacturers' Consortium. "Success here will breed new opportunities‹opportunities that are dependent on the stream of input that comes from university research."

All things considered, Havran says, the region has all the ingredients for success in the biotechnology industry. Within the state, the Tampa Bay area has one of the strongest industry bases to ensure success. Add to that the university's reputation as one of the country's leading research institutions and the synergy becomes obvious.


Focused Research

The new Center of Excellence will focus on four key areas of research and development: medical devices and manufacturing methods; rehabilitation engineering for people with disabilities; biosensors and medical imaging; and new technologies for drug delivery.

"What we are trying to facilitate here is interdisciplinary research‹work that lies at the boundaries of different fields," says Dr. Louis Martin-Vega, dean of the College of Engineering. "We're talking about the kind of research that is driving the development of new technology."

That makes good business sense, according to Carlucci, who says the new Center of Excellence parallels national investments and the national agenda -- an agenda that rewards and expects interdisciplinary research.

Enhanced Educational Experience

For USF students, bringing research strengths together in one College of Engineering provides an innovative and rich learning environment. It creates a hub where traditional disciplines, each with their own culture and language, intersect.

In the past students spoke only one technical language. They approached challenges from a single perspective. That's no longer enough, says Dr. Bruce Lindsey, Professor of Physiology and Biophysics in the USF College of Medicine. Success in today's complex and competitive environment depends on the blending of a variety of disciplines and scientific principles.

Consider medical imaging, for example. Through imaging technology, doctors can identify and diagnose medical conditions. The actual capture of data, however, involves a computer device. By working together and understanding one another, doctors, technicians and computer scientists can develop the technology that best captures the information doctors need to arrive at the most accurate diagnosis and effective treatment. That, simply put, is the intersection of bioengineering and the life sciences.

"We are hoping to develop students who are fluent in more than one technical language," says Lindsey. "If you get students in an environment like this, they become truly multilingual."

World-Class Faculty

Bringing focus and depth to the research enterprise through the new Center of Excellence creates a magnet to attract and retain truly talented people who can provide new ideas and innovative concepts that will ultimately lead to new products and technologies.

"Traditionally, academics have stayed within the walls of universities," says Lindsey. "It is only in the past 10 to 15 years that scientists have begun to think entrepreneurially -- how to do things that will have a greater impact on society."

This focus will strategically facilitate that interaction between science and the community.

Additionally, that interaction builds on the success of USF's Center for Entrepreneurship and its business incubator that helps move discoveries from the laboratory to new or existing area businesses. It's the kind of muscle, along with partnerships with H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute, the James A. Haley Veteran's Hospital, Tampa General Hospital, a consortium of colleges and universities and an array of strategic affiliates, that makes the concept so powerful.


Community and Industry Impact

The potential impact of the new Center of Excellence outside the campus boundaries cannot be overstated. Through its partnerships with regional industrial affiliates, the center will bridge the gap between academia and industry, a gap that has long existed in the Tampa Bay region, according to Suzanne Christman, business development manager for Pinellas County Economic Development.

"We've always known there's a lot going on at USF, but we haven't known how to work with the university," says Christman. "This new center is the bridge that will close the gap. It will give us an avenue to directly link industry with the university."
Why is that important?

Manufacturers rely on new products to strengthen and grow their businesses. Medical devices have a very short life cycle.  New devices replace existing ones every year so so. Research that improves the function and efficiency of current devices is essential as well as a constant stream of new ideas for developing totally new products.

And this university-industry collaboration creates new high-tech jobs as well. For every engineer working on a single device, industry needs at least ten skilled technicians to support their efforts. So community colleges are partnering with USF to provide specialized training to assure their are enough highly skilled workers to support the growing biotech industry in Tampa Bay.

An industrial advisory board with representatives from industry and the university anchors the partnership, says Lindsey. The board will ensure that industry partners actively participate in the strategic guidance and management of all aspects of the center, from research project selection and evaluation to strategic planning and marketing.

"This has been a true collaborative effort from the start," says Martin-Vega. "We have tried to involve as many people as possible, from inside and outside the university, in every part of the design."


A Full Circle Process

"This is not a linear thing, it is a full circle process that feeds back to basic research," says Martin-Vega. "We are creating a cycle that, until now, didn't exist." That cycle involves students, faculty and industry, all building on existing strengths to achieve success.

"From concept to commercialization, we have all the necessary ingredients here to make it happen," says Mike Kovac, acting director of the Nanomaterials and Nanometrics Research Center at USF. "It is in the best economic, cultural and political interests of the state to have this kind of focused activity taking place." It's a tangible way that USF is touching lives, improves medical treatment and innovation, and makes a real difference for the people and businesses of Florida.

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Last Modified on Wednesday December 15, 2010