HomeResearchHealth-Care Technology Development and Assessment: Integrating Research and Undergraduate Education in Biomedical Engineering

Our Scientists

Health-Care Technology Development and Assessment: Integrating Research and Undergraduate Education in Biomedical Engineering

Research Summary

Rebecca Richards-Kortum's research focuses on developing optical technologies for detecting cervical precancer in vivo. Her HHMI project involves expanding an internship program that immerses bioengineering majors in all aspects of biomedical research; broadly disseminating the curriculum of Bioengineering and World Health, a course for nonscience majors; and modifying this curriculum for use in high schools and middle schools.

Project Update - Beyond Traditional Borders

Beginning with the original project grant in 2002 and expanded through science education program and competitive renewal grants in 2006, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) has generously supported the grassroots development and global expansion of Beyond Traditional Borders (BTB).

Today, BTB has grown to become an award-winning program in global health technology development and biomedical engineering education. Its operations involve widespread networks of educational, research, and clinical collaborators and multidisciplinary groups of local and international community stakeholders.

The BTB initiative, managed by Rice 360°: Institute for Global Health Technologies, has trained more than 10 percent of Rice University’s undergraduate students in the investigation, development, and implementation of affordable and effective technologies for use in clinical settings the United States and in remote regions of the world.

This training includes undergraduate coursework in biomedical research and development, real‐world engineering design challenges, international internship opportunities, and outreach education. Students use the tools of science and engineering, and gather input from doctors and health-care professionals as they develop and commercialize technologies. Projects have included:  a continuous positive airway pressure (bubble CPAP) device for infants with respiratory distress syndrome, a platform of liquid-medicine dosing syringe for children of various ages with HIV/AIDS, a hand-powered centrifuge, several unique diagnostic-lab-in-a-backpacks, a battery-powered fluorescence microscope, and dozens of other student-designed devices. More than 60,000 people in 28 countries have benefited from 58 global-health technologies and programs. The dosing clips and diagnostic lab-in-a-backpack projects have been distributed nationally.  

The foundation of the BTB initiative is a four-year, interdisciplinary minor in global-health technologies (GLHT), which includes five core courses and two elective courses. The first course, Bioengineering & World Health, was the impetus behind the initial HHMI grant in 2002. Subsequent sequence courses foster a command of specialized knowledge relevant to the development of technologies appropriate for resource-constrained settings.

A unique yearlong capstone course, Global Health Design Challenges, requires multidisciplinary teams of students to work together to develop a solution to a real-world international health challenge. Students are mentored by faculty and clinical advisors, and they have the opportunity to test and refine their designs through BTB’s summer international internship program.

The Bioengineering & World Health curriculum has been adapted to an outreach program for middle and high school students. Curriculum is disseminated annually at a professional development workshop for teachers. The course is accompanied by a high school design competition. The curriculum has been approved for science credit by the Texas Education Agency. The textbook Biomedical Engineering for Global Health, published by Cambridge University Press in 2010, was also developed to support the course.

In 2012, BTB was chosen as a model program by Science magazine and awarded the Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction. A year later, the hands-on engineering education program was awarded the $100,000 Lemelson-MIT Award for Global Innovation for bringing life-saving health solutions to the developing world. Donations from this award were dedicated toward the construction of a new neonatal ward at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital (QECH) in Blantyre, Malawi.

In addition to providing excellent care for newborns, the QECH neonatal ward will serve as an innovation hub for the design, evaluation, and implementation of Rice 360°’s Day One Project. Recently, QECH, Rice 360°, and the University of Malawi College of Medicine began distributing the student-designed bubble CPAP in teaching hospitals in three African nations.

Project Update - Med Into Grad

The Rice University, University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center Med Into Grad (MIG) program is a doctoral training program in Translational Cancer Diagnostics and Therapeutics Research for Bioengineers and Biophysicists. Funded by HHMI since 2006, the program integrates cancer biology, clinical medicine, translational research, and bioengineering.

MIG students from Rice’s Bioengineering program and from the Medical Physics program at the University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at UT MD Anderson receive specialized training in translational research at the interface of cancer biology, clinical medicine, and the quantitative sciences. Students learn to work in highly collaborative environments and apply their expertise in engineering and natural sciences to make the breakthroughs needed to reduce the incidence and mortality of cancer.

The program builds on the strong base of joint translational research between bioengineers, basic scientists and clinicians in four areas:

  • Computational bioengineering to design cancer-inhibiting drugs and vaccines;
  • Molecular imaging for early cancer detection;
  • Nanobiotechnology to design new cancer imaging and therapeutic agents; and
  • Cell and tissue engineering to develop effective reconstructive procedures following tumor resection.

The unique training program integrates:

  • Courses in cancer biology, clinical medicine, bioengineering and translational research;
  • An internship in clinical cancer care and translational research; and
  • Jointly mentored interdisciplinary PhD projects.

Research in the Richards-Kortum Lab

Rebecca Richards-Kortum’s Optical Spectroscopy and Imaging Laboratory integrates advances in nanotechnology and molecular imaging with microfabrication technologies to develop optical imaging systems that are inexpensive, portable, and provide point-of-care diagnosis. The basic and translational research is highly collaborative and has led to many new technologies that improve the early detection of cancers and other diseases, especially in impoverished settings.

Richards-Kortum’s group develops miniature imaging systems that enable better screening for oral, esophageal, and cervical cancer and their precursors at the point-of-care. An array of optical-imaging devices and systems, which are compact, highly sensitive and have increased specificity for evaluating neoplastic tumors, have been developed through several interinstitutional, multidisciplinary collaborations involving clinicians and investigators.

Effective molecular imaging requires a molecule-specific source of signal, typically provided through a contrast agent, and an imaging system to detect this signal. Richards-Kortum’s group develops contrast agents for in vivo molecular imaging of changes associated with precancer, including expression of epidermal growth factor reception. Her group has also worked to integrate advances in nanotechnology and microfabrication to develop novel, low-cost sensors to detect diseases at the point-of-care, including cryptosporidium, malaria, Tuberculosis, and sickle cell anemia.

Results of these efforts have led to the development of 29 patents, and have been published in more than 260 refereed research papers and 11 book chapters.

As of May 2014