The heart of collaboration between Rice University and the Texas Medical Center (TMC) began beating three decades ago with the idea of a heart that didn’t beat at all.
Rice’s Institute of Biosciences and Bioengineering (IBB) celebrated its 30th anniversary Oct. 26 with an Oktoberfest and short lectures to remind the hundreds gathered that the university’s fruitful collaboration within Rice and with its neighbors went back much further, to the development of the first artificial heart.
Paul Cherukuri, named this summer as IBB’s executive director, held up an original prototype of the artificial heart from 50 years ago and reminded the audience at the BioScience Research Collaborative how it led to the pneumatic-powered heart implanted in a Texas Heart Institute patient in 1969. (Another early model resides at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.)
“A central part of the mission of IBB is to support faculty in collaborative, interdisciplinary research and education,” said Rice bioengineer and IBB Director Jane Grande-Allen. “Fostering ties with the Texas Medical Center is one way in which we provide this support, both now and over the entire history of IBB.”
Cherukuri said William Akers, a Rice professor emeritus of chemical and biomolecular engineering and of bioengineering, became attached to the project when Dr. Michael DeBakey of Baylor College of Medicine approached Rice President Kenneth Pitzer in 1964. “He wanted to know if there was a way to build an artificial heart,” Cherukuri said. “There were patients who had failing hearts, and you couldn’t get transplants fast enough. He realized he couldn’t build this himself and needed some engineers.”
The collaboration led to the first National Institutes of Health grant to Rice, for $5 million, in 1966, and eventually to the heart itself.
“If we could do something like this back in the ’60s, we can certainly do something better now,” Cherukuri said. “What Rice shrewdly also realized with that collaboration led to something even more fundamental. It led to a shift in thinking … that in order to innovate, you have to collaborate.”
President David Leebron, introduced by Grande-Allen, elaborated on the theme. “As we build up our presence in the biosciences, the way we have done that in many respects is to build across the university, and that’s really what the IBB stands for,” he said, describing collaborations as “not optional, but necessary.”
Bioscientist Yousif Shamoo, Rice’s vice provost for research and a former IBB director, noted that even in 1986, when the late biochemistry and cell biology professors George Schroepfer and Fred Rudolph and former chemical engineering and bioengineering professor Larry McIntire founded IBB, the concept of engineers, biologists and medical researchers working together was still a “radical concept.”
“Very few schools were thinking in these kinds of terms around engineering and science being merged with the biosciences in a unique way,” Shamoo said, noting the proximity of TMC was a strong motivator.
Two speakers represented TMC, though only one was physically present. Dr. James Willerson, president of the Texas Heart Institute, talked about how the future of innovation in Houston depended on deep connections between TMC and Rice scientists.
“The TMC is incredibly fortunate to have Rice right across the street and part of the medical center,” he said. “The development of new devices like heart pumps, like special catheters, like new imaging techniques that are increasingly sensitive, like gene editing — the manipulation of genes — will rest in the collaboration between us across the street and you. And what a partnership it could be.”
The other, Dr. Billy Cohn, director of the Center for Device Innovation at TMC, a Texas Heart Institute surgeon and an adjunct professor of bioengineering at Rice, delivered his message via a video feed from Prague. He had been called there on short notice to take part in the first test of a new device.
“My absence is a symptom and, perhaps, a celebration of our successful collaborations, because now the Texas Medical Center has become the go-to place for medical device innovation and testing,” he said.
“Training here under DeBakey in Houston, right across the street from Rice, really planted the seeds for my life of innovation and collaboration with Rice,” he said.
Cohn, a Baylor College of Medicine alumnus and a medical device inventor with more than 90 U.S. patents granted or pending, listed some of his many collaborations with Rice engineers, whom he tapped for help on the invention that led to his first patent of a biological fluid warmer. Since then, his pathway to the engineering expertise critical to his inventions invariably led to Grande-Allen, who connects him with Rice students and faculty with the talent he needs.
“You see how this works? Instant collaboration,” he said.
Shamoo drew parallels between nanotechnology, for which Rice became famous beginning with the discovery of the carbon-60 buckyball in the ’80s, and developments in bioengineering. Now he sees them merging to the great benefit of both disciplines and said Rice is uniquely positioned to benefit. “We’re training a cadre of students who are new scientists and engineers who can think across those traditional boundaries in a big way,” he said.
The event included food and drink for the estimated 400 in attendance, and a graduate student poster competition won by Hsiao-Ying Cheng (first place) and Lizanne Nilewski (second place).
It was sponsored by the Office of Research, the Wiess School of Natural Sciences, the George R. Brown School of Engineering, the Center for Theoretical Biological Physics and the departments of Biosciences, Bioengineering, Chemistry, and Physics and Astronomy