Krishnendu Roy talks about the Center for Immunoengineering at Georgia Tech
My first significant exposure to Immunology was in my first year of PhD at Johns Hopkins. In those days there were only 8-10 students admitted to the BME doctoral program at Hopkins and everyone had to go through the basic science curriculum in the medical school. So, that first year I did not take any engineering or math classes; rather, with my fellow medical students immersed in dissecting cadaver, taking anatomy, physiology, neuroscience and developmental biology. But it was immunology that fascinated me. I came from an electrical engineering, control systems background, and the intricate feedback control of the human immune system, its redundancies and its stability in the midst of chaos, simply blew me away. Ever since, I have been amazed and excited by the idea that engineers can quantitatively study the immune system to understand its behavior in health and precisely modulate it in diseases to help patients.
Fast forward two decades and we are now experiencing a revolution in how we think of human diseases and how we approach to solve them. I don’t think I know of any disease where the immune system is not intricately involved. From a simple fever and cough to cancer and HIV, from a rash or a cut to autoimmune and cardiovascular diseases; immunology plays a central role in keeping us healthy and manifesting our diseases. Our fundamental knowledge of biology and how cells, organs and systems physiology work together have increased exponentially over the past two decades and with that has come much appreciation of immunological balance and the potential of modulating ones immune system to treat devastating diseases like cancer, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, lupus, HIV and others.
So how do engineers fit into this picture? The involvement of engineers and engineering sciences (i.e. the application of physics, chemistry and math) is not new to immunology. Material scientists, chemists, pharmaceutical researchers as well as chemical and bioengineers have worked on implant pathology, vaccine delivery and drug delivery for decades. What has changed now is the broad acceptance that engineers are critical for understanding fundamental immunology, modeling diseases and disease outcomes, developing new tools for high throughput assays and analysis, providing new strategies for immune-modulation, and improving our understanding of the immune system through systems immunology and synthetic biology.
Immunologists and biologists have been the first to embrace the idea of partnering with engineers, develop new quantitative tools to study and solve diseases, and to understand the fundamental physics and chemistry of the immune system. The landscape of how we look at a disease process and how we benchmark normal homeostasis has clearly shifted to an engineering-driven approach. Immunologists, biologists and clinicians have converged with physicists, chemists, computational scientist as well as chemical, electrical, mechanical and bioengineers to launch an all-out attack against devastating diseases using the immune system as their fundamental weapon.
It is in this backdrop that this past fall Georgia Tech launched what could be the first ever Center for Immunoengineering in the nation. Given GT's strength in biosciences and bioengineering under the convergence of the Parker H. Petit Institute of Bioengineering & Bioscience, along with its partnership with the world renowned immunology expertise at Emory, this was an obvious choice, but certainly a visionary one. More than 30 faculty across 7 schools are part of this unique endeavor that, for the first time provides a concerted effort in engineering our immune system and solving some of the most critical problems in human health: from cancer to HIV, from diabetes to transplant rejection, from regenerative medicine to multiple sclerosis. Earlier this year, powered by a strong support from the Georgia Research Alliance (GRA), Georgia Tech and Emory launched the broader Georgia Immunoengineering Consortium (GIEC). With over 60 faculty members from both universities and incredible support from the GRA, Georgia Tech and Emory administrations, the GIEC is poised to become the world leader in creating breakthrough engineering tools, methods and solutions for understanding and modulating the immune system and developing new solutions for personalized and predictive health-care. We envision that in the near future when a patient walks into their office, doctors would routinely and rapidly assess the comprehensive “immune-status” of a patient just like they do a blood test or an MRI, take that assessment data and quantitatively predict immune function and disease state using modeling and data-driven analysis and finally use materials-driven tools and engineering approaches to enhance and modulate the patient’s immune system and eliminate or alleviate their disease.
In the midst of this exciting research environment, it is critical that we develop sound policies to train our students and fellows in this emerging “convergence science” area of Immunoengineering. As I look back to my own training decades ago, I realize the fundamental principle remains the same. Trainees must be versed at both languages; they must fundamentally understand immunology and biology, experience the clinical and basic science needs and then apply their sound engineering, analytical and design skills to solve problems. On the other hand immunologists and clinical fellows need to be immersed in the engineering science, through partnership with their engineering colleagues, so that they can use these new tools and methods seamlessly. It is this true convergence of multiple experts that would allow us to advance human health.
I am excited to be part of this tremendous effort that has brought together a public and a private university with a citizen-funded non-profit; a unique partnership that is rare in this country. We are off to a great start. Now, we have to deliver. There is much enthusiasm and expectation and we as engineers and scientists, immunologists and clinicians must keep in mind that at the end we are in it to help our fellow citizens; our children and parents, our friends and families and many others whom we have never met or will ever meet.