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The question before us is how we can use our understanding of biological systems to design technologies that prevent disease and injury, cure disease, or detect diseases before they become uncurable. That’s the interface between engineering, technology and biology. Peter Zandstra (above left), Director, School of Biomedical Engineering.

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An ever-deepening understanding of biological systems means that medical researchers are on the cusp of unprecedented opportunity – but only if they achieve a paradigm shift in the way research is conducted.

Established in 2017 as a strategic partnership between the University of British Columbia faculties of applied science and medicine, the School of Biomedical Engineering was founded to meet that challenge, attracting scientists and engineers to an interdisciplinary environment designed to transform health care.

“The question before us is how we can use our understanding of biological systems to design technologies that prevent disease and injury, cure disease, or detect diseases before they become uncurable. That’s the interface between engineering, technology and biology,” says Peter Zandstra, the school’s director. “We’re bringing together people who have a deep understanding of biology and the ability to think about biological systems from a design and engineering perspective.”

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The potential is immense. “At a cellular level, we’re starting to think about designing new cell types to target cancer,” says Dr. Zandstra. “New sensor devices may help stabilize knees by measuring force; artificial retinas may read and write to the optic nerve.”

Two researchers joining the school this summer illustrate the possibilities ahead as well as the level of international talent being attracted to the school.

Nika Shakiba is a stem cell researcher and synthetic biologist from MIT who has been designing cells that have response loops, using feedback to turn stem cells into different types of cells useful for therapeutic purposes. At UBC, she says, “My lab will work on understanding how individual cells co-operate and compete with one another, and how this drives the success or peril of multicellular populations like the tissues and organs that make up our bodies. In addition to that, we’re interested in applying synthetic biology tools that allow us to genetically program the competitive drive itself.”

She believes these tools will help give rise to a new class of engineered cell therapies, improving the use of therapy products and manufacturing pipelines and enhancing the ability of engineered cells to survive when transplanted into the body.

She joins a community of world-class stem cell researchers at UBC, with numerous labs dedicated to various aspects of stem cell research. “I was looking for a home where these key collaborators would be available in an environment of expertise and multidisciplinary collaboration, which is certainly the culture of UBC,” says Dr. Shakiba.

UBC’s strong support system for commercialization and translation was also a key factor in her decision to come back to Canada, she says. “I not only want to make key biological discoveries but to be able to push them into the commercialization pipeline and make a difference for Canadians.”

Calvin Kuo, formerly of Stanford University, will join the school as an assistant professor specializing in the development of technologies that measure and analyze human motion and brain and musculoskeletal injuries. With a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and computer science and a master’s and PhD in mechanical engineering, he is currently completing a postdoc in kinesiology.

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“These injuries are very hard to analyze, especially when they’re occurring, so typically we test on surrogate models such as cadavers,” he explains. “My focus is getting information from people in the wild – basketball and soccer players, for example – so when they are injured, we can get a sense of how these things occur.”

I was looking for a home where these key collaborators would be available in an environment of expertise and multidisciplinary collaboration, which is certainly the culture of UBC.

— Nika Shakiba, a stem cell researcher and synthetic biologist from MIT

The other aspect of his research is understanding how humans perceive our own motion, he adds. “We have a number of biological sensors in our body that we use to understand how we’re interacting with our world. The tie-in is that the wearable technologies we use to measure motion for injury work have biological sensor equivalents, which we study in the neurological work I do.”

The research Dr. Kuo’s lab will do aligns with the vast trend toward personalized medicine, he adds. “It’s no longer about going to the doctor to be prescribed a generic treatment that has been tested on an average male.

“If you look at Olympic athletes, for example, they have a whole host of trainers watching them every single day and optimizing what they should be doing in terms of nutrition, fitness and exercise. While we can’t assign trainers to everyone, the technologies I and others are developing mean we can start collecting health data to make this kind of personalized care more widely available.”


Produced by Randall Anthony Communications. The Globe’s Editorial Department was not involved in its creation.

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