NIBIB's Pettigrew pitches personalized medicine at Cancun conference

October 22, 2003

(From EETimes, Sept. 22, 2003) Researchers in Europe and the United States are planning multimillion-dollar projects to deliver such electronically enabled remedies as molecular

(From EETimes, Sept. 22, 2003)

Researchers in Europe and the United States are planning multimillion-dollar projects to deliver such electronically enabled remedies as molecular therapy and wearable monitoring systems tailored to the individual patient.

"We are headed toward an era of personalized medicine in which we can target specific ailments down to cells and the proteins expressed by those cells," Roderic Pettigrew, the director of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB), said in a keynote at the annual conference of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society in Cancun, Mexico.

Putting its weight behind the trend, the U.S. National Institutes of Health this week will roll out a national molecular library in an effort to accelerate development of drugs and nanoscale agents.

Meanwhile, the European Union is in the final stages of negotiating a $16 million research initiative to help establish the nascent field of wearable health monitors.

The NIH library will act as a repository "for some of the hundreds of thousands of molecules the pharmaceutical industry screens" for their potential in identifying target agents used to track or treat diseases, NIBIB's Pettigrew said. Such agents are key as new medical imaging techniques help physicians peer deeper into cellular and molecular activity to discover and treat diseases at ever-earlier stages in ways tailored to the individual patient.

For example, researchers are using functional magnetic-resonance imaging techniques to display real-time images in heart tissue damaged in cardiac arrest, so that custom gene or stem cell therapy could be used to repair the specific tissues. Other imaging technologies raise the possibility of peering inside a cross-section of a blood vessel to see and treat early signs of plaque buildup that could lead to a heart attack, said Pettigrew in his keynote.

"These are invaluable tools in unleashing the secrets of biological systems and diseases to understand how they work," he added.

Nevertheless, huge advances in imaging are still needed for a host of applications, such as identifying which segments of the brain need to be stimulated to treat Parkinson's disease. Surgeons now use a trial-and-error system that can require hours in the operating room. "Currently, the [imaging] tools we have are too insensitive by a factor of a thousand," Pettigrew said.

For its part, NIBIB, now in its second year of operation, is gearing to reach out to industry while setting up its first internal research projects. "We anticipate having an industry summit in the not-too-distant future to ask how we can more effectively bring discoveries to the patient in a timely fashion," said Pettigrew. In its next fiscal year, NIBIB plans to fund internal research for the first time, focusing on work not being conducted by industry or academia. To date, the fledgling institute has spent all its R&D funds, totaling nearly $280 million this year, on external projects.

For more, see Europe dons sensors