Where medicine meets technology

University of Illinois and Carle Health System are creating the nation’s first engineering-driven medical college.

Where Medicine Meets Technology (Illustration courtesy of Carle Illinois College of Medicine)
University of Illinois and Carle Health System are creating the nation’s first engineering-driven medical college.

The cancerous mass is removed from the patient’s breast, but the question uppermost in the surgeon’s mind is: “Did I get everything?” If even a small part of the tumor is missed, the patient will have to go under the knife a second time. Before finishing an operation, a physician will make an inspection by palpating, or feeling, the tissue along the surgical cavity because a tumor in the “surgical margin” will typically be stiffer than healthy tissue. Identifying a suspicious area, the surgeon then removes an additional piece of tissue and sends it to the pathology lab. At the lab, technicians examine the tissue at the microscopic level to find out if surgery removed all of the tumor.

In 30 to 40 percent of breast-cancer surgeries, physicians fail to eliminate all cancerous tissue and have to re-operate. But Stephen Boppart, ’90 ENG, MS ’91 ENG, head of the University of Illinois Biophotonics Imaging Laboratory, aims to improve those odds by developing a hand-held tool that physicians can use to examine tissue microscopically during surgery to determine if a tumor has been eradicated completely. The device, which can be used on any solid tumor, detects cancerous tissue 92 percent of the time.

Boppart is a UI professor in electrical and computer engineering and bioengineering, but he’s also an M.D. with an appointment at Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana. He is just the kind of doctor who will soon be graduating from UI every year. That’s because Carle Health System and the University have joined forces to create the Carle Illinois College of Medicine, which is scheduled to admit its first class in the fall of 2018.

Carle Illinois will be the first new college at UI since 1944, when the College of Veterinary Medicine was established. But more importantly, it will be the nation’s first engineering-based medical college. Students who graduate from this program will be physicians first and foremost, but they also will be trained to put innovative technology in the hands of other doctors.

The Urbana campus currently trains medical students as a branch of the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine. There are 125 first-year medical students in Urbana, and an additional 25 students in years two through four—but their degrees are granted by UIC.

For decades, UI has been thinking about starting its own college of medicine in Urbana, but it wasn’t until five years ago, when former Chancellor Phyllis Wise and others took up the idea, that it became a reality. The University of Illinois Board of Trustees officially approved the new college in March 2015.

“We have a long tradition of making discoveries that change the way people understand and interact with their world,” says UI Interim Chancellor Barb Wilson. “There is tremendous excitement about this new college, and about the opportunity at Illinois to impact medical innovation and medical education in the same transformative way we have done in fields such as agriculture, computer science and genomics.”

Carle Illinois will integrate engineering into the curricula from the ground up. According to Rashid Bashir, head of UI’s Dept. of Bioengineering, the time is right to make engineering the “third pillar” of medical training, alongside clinical and biological sciences. Other universities have tried to shoehorn engineering into existing programs, but it’s difficult to do. “What has been missing explicitly in most medical colleges around the country,” Bashir says, “is the role of engineering and technology.”

Medical Engineering
With the sequencing of the human genome, new imaging technology, biomaterials that replace human tissue and dramatic increases in medical data, medicine is changing rapidly. Because it has one of the top engineering colleges in the world—U.S. News & World Report last year ranked UI’s undergraduate engineering program fifth in the nation and its graduate program sixth—Illinois is just the place to bring an engineering focus to medicine.

The decision to emphasize engineering at the new college “was based on the fact that many of the innovations in medicine are taking place at the interface of engineering,” says Martha Gillette, director of the UI neurosciences program. “This is the kind of age we’re in.”

Like the University, Carle has been involved with the UIC College of Medicine for many years. But the hospital has long wanted to expand its research and teaching, and a locally based college is the way to do it. Carle Foundation Hospital ranked 14th best out of 222 Illinois hospitals and was named one of the “50 Best Hospitals in America” by Healthgrades. It is a 393-bed, tertiary-care hospital, meaning other hospitals send patients to Carle for advanced and complex treatments, says Kayla Banks, ’05 UIC, MS ’09 UIC, PHD ’14 UIC, Carle’s executive director of the new College of Medicine.

No new state or University funds will be used for the college, which will be funded by $100 million from Carle, spread out over 10 years, as well as tuition and fees income, sponsored research funding, clinical practice revenues, and gifts and endowment income. The University has an initial goal of raising $135 million in philanthropic donations to support the college. For the first 10 years, there will be no need for new construction, as the college will use existing space at Carle and on campus. There will, however, be a call for new physicians. According to Matthew Gibb, cardiologist and system chief medical officer for Carle, the college will be “looking at an initial need for roughly 70 physicians”—new doctors who will take on teaching or research, in addition to clinical practice.

The new college must still find a dean by this fall and receive provisional accreditation by next year, so student recruitment can begin in 2017. The plan is to have 25 medical students the first year, with an eye on doubling the class to 50 in five years.

“Engineers are trained to solve a problem, to build something,” Gillette says, so the doctors coming out of the college will be innovators as well as physicians. They will be people like Martin Burke, an MD and UI professor of chemistry. In 1998, when Burke was doing his first clinical rotation at Harvard Med, he encountered a 22-year-old cystic fibrosis patient who was taking 17 different medications for a disorder caused by a single missing chloride channel. This encounter inspired him to develop “molecular prosthetics.” Today, his Illinois lab develops molecules to replicate the functions of critical missing proteins.

Research like Burke’s flourishes across the campus and at Carle. The accompanying sidebars exemplify the kind of work the new Carle Illinois College of Medicine will undertake. “It’s natural that it’s something our campus should do,” Boppart says. “Our campus has a tradition of changing the world.”

Sidebar: Hidden eye trauma

Sidebar: Medical GPS

Sidebar: New treatments, old drugs

Sidebar: A new otoscope 

Sidebar: Auditory aging