The Image of Health

Wednesday, October 1, 2008
The Image of Health

The Iowa Institute for Biomedical Imaging

Biomedical digital imaging and image analysis will be critical facets of 21st century medicine, playing an increasingly vital role in both the diagnosis and treatment of disease. Researchers in the College of Engineering are well aware of the power of biomedical imaging and have collaborated for several decades with their medical colleagues across the river. The recent creation of the Iowa Institute for Biomedical Imaging (IIBI) now provides a research and discovery home for the University’s entire biomedical imaging community—more than 120 UI faculty from four colleges—as well as a formal connection between UI engineering and medical researchers, imaging researchers, and research companies around the world.

A significant affirmation of the long and fruitful collaboration between the College of Engineering and the Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine, the IIBI offers both physical and virtual space for UI faculty, staff, and students to conduct a broad range of research and to enhance education in biomedical image acquisition, image analysis, radiation treatment, and image-guided virtual surgery. A number of ongoing UI research efforts will be tucked under the institute’s umbrella, including projects that image—and significantly enhance the diagnosis of—a variety of lung, heart, brain, bone, and eye diseases not only in three dimensions, but also through the fourth dimension of time.

The IIBI will be directed by Professor of Internal Medicine, Radiology, and Biomedical Engineering Geoffrey McLennan. Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Radiation Oncology, and Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences Milan Sonka will serve as co-director. Sonka recently was appointed departmental executive officer for Electrical and Computer Engineering. He and McLennan envision the institute as a new bridge that not only links researchers in a number of UI colleges but also will draw prominent researchers from around the world to the Iowa campus.

“Typically, engineers and physicians identify and solve problems in very different ways,” McLennan says. “Engineers tend to take a more goal-oriented approach and look for rapid, finite results, such as when building a process or piece of equipment. Physicians use the experiment-driven method that seeks to prove or disprove hypotheses—a process that can take many years.”

Sonka notes that the institute “provides a formal platform for engineers, physicians, and others to share ideas and methodology, conduct multidisciplinary collaborative research, tap additional funding resources, and broaden the impact of imaging science.”

Although he adds that at other academic institutions, it would be a crazy idea to create an institute that reports to two deans but here, the IIBI is firmly grounded in a long tradition of mutual respect, shared interests, and trust among UI researchers and administrators on both sides of the river. The appointment of three faculty members who have 50/50 appointments in the colleges of engineering and medicine also is emblematic of the team’s success.

“One of the keys to IIBI’s success,” says Hans Johnson, associate faculty in psychiatry and a member of the IIBI computing committee, “is that there are no ‘walls’ between our engineering faculty and our medical faculty.”

Johnson (B.S. 1997 in biomedical engineering; M.A. 2000, Ph.D. 2002 in electrical and computer engineering) facilitates that interface by searching around the world to identify and harvest computer science tools and systems that will help institute researchers wield computers to help solve the medical problems of real patients. The institute will be capable of digital imaging at all levels, from molecular and animal models to the “whole human,” and the researchers have worked closely with information technologists at the University and the University of Iowa Hospital and Clinics to develop a common environment for data storage and seamless access among IIBI collaborators.

Digital medical imaging can provide vast advantages over more traditional methods of diagnosis, which sometimes entail identifying at-risk patients after they have suffered a serious health problem. So, for instance, by scanning beating hearts to collect 4-D medical images, Sonka and his colleagues seek to identify Marfan Syndrome patients who are at risk for aortic rupture before such an episode occurs. The researchers hope their work will eventually enable physicians to operate on those patients who are most at risk, thereby mitigating the likelihood of a life-threatening event. Because the imaging process is non-invasive, Sonka can collect data over time, not only from people who have the syndrome but also from those who do not. Comparative
data from the latter group has allowed the researchers to document and better understand how vascular defects develop in people with Marfan Syndrome.

As a pulmonologist, McLennan gathers images of the trachea and lungs to aid in the diagnosis and treatment of asthma, emphysema, cancer, and other lung diseases—work which would have been impossible without serious collaboration with engineers. These sorts of collaborative efforts have led to the development of the first images of the breathing air sacs in the lung, the first images of human lung cancer pathology in 3-D, and the development of a “GPS” system for the lungs that uses high-resolution CT images to virtually reconstruct the landscape of an individual’s pulmonary system.

“There is no doubt,” McLennan says, “that the major advances in imaging at The University of Iowa are paving the way for the personalization of health care through patient-specific digital imaging strategies.”

Unlike digital scanners in other medical research facilities, those in the Iowa Institute for Biomedical Imaging will be dedicated solely to research, not to patient care. To facilitate bench-tobedside translational digital imaging research, IIBI researchers also will create and test nonhuman computer models, live cell systems, and animal models that can be generalized to human studies. Part of the new facility will include what Sonka calls mouse-sized CT, MR,
and optical scanners that will work adjacent to human-sized scanners to provide important preclinical discovery.

But although the digital scanners are dedicated to research, the researchers are dedicated to improving health care through advanced research, education, and technology transfer. By establishing start-up companies, the IIBI researchers are ensuring that imaging research becomes health care reality.

Launched in 2003 by Sonka, McLennan, Professor of Radiology, Medicine, and Biomedical Engineering Eric Hoffman, and Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering Joseph Reinhardt,
VIDA Diagnostics develops software that performs quantitative analysis of 3-D images of the lungs formed from 2-D CT slices of the chest. A University spin-off company located on the Oakdale Research Campus, VIDA Diagnostics has already secured two patents for the University and garnered almost a million dollars in external funding.

The Iowa Institute for Biomedical Imaging will be housed in a new 200,000-square-foot building on the College of Medicine campus. Due to open in 2011 and funded by approximately $120 million of state, federal, and University support as well as private gifts, the Discovery building will house IIBI scanners, laboratories, and office space, in addition to a number of other laboratories and research groups.

The building’s September 2007 groundbreaking ceremony was attended by a number of state dignitaries, including Iowa Gov. Chet Culver.

“With this new facility,” the governor said during his address, “we will be able to help countless people around the globe who suffer from illness and disease by turning their hope for a cure into a reality.”