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VOL. 122 | NO. 62 | Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Hidden Treasure

Cadre of researchers works behind scenes to enrich growing biomedical industry

By Amy O. Williams

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ELECTROMAGNETISM: Dr. Gary Keyes, chair of the Biomedical Engineering and Imaging Department at the UT Health Science Center, pauses with professor Frank DiBianca, the department's former chair and recent winner of UNICO National's Marconi Science Award. -- Photo By Amy O. Williams

Right in the middle of Memphis' emerging biomedical center is a somewhat hidden - and often overlooked - gem.

That gem actually is a group of scientists in the Biomedical Engineering and Imaging Department at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, and they work every day developing, testing and improving medical technology.

Among the scientists in the department are physicists, engineers and physicians who work in various areas of research, but they are all biomedical engineers, said Dr. M. Waleed Gaber, an assistant professor who works in molecular imaging.

"This is the fastest-growing field in the nation," Gaber said. "It is a very important field."

And, he said, biomedical engineering (BME) is at the core of the bioscience community in Memphis, which includes local industry giants such as Smith and Nephew PLC and Medtronic's Spinal and Biologics Business.

'On the map'

The department is home to award-winning scientists such as professor Frank DiBianca, a Ph.D. who holds the Children's Foundation of Memphis Chair of Excellence.

DiBianca recently won the Marconi Science Award, which was presented to him March 17 in St. Louis by UNICO National, the largest Italian-American service organization in the country. UNICO is an acronym that stands for Unity, Neighborliness, Integrity, Charity and Opportunity. The national chapter of UNICO is in Fairfield, N.J.

UNICO established the Marconi award in 1994 to honor the centennial of the first long-distance wireless transmission and to recognize the ground-breaking scientific contributions of Italian inventor Guglielmo Marchese Marconi.

The University of Tennessee
Health Science Center
Department of Biomedical Engineering and Imaging Faculty:

Gary S. Keyes, Ph.D., Professor and Department Chair

Frank DiBianca, Ph.D., Professor and Chair of Excellence

Jack W. Buchanan, M.D., Associate Professor

Denis J. DiAngelo, Ph.D., Associate Professor

M. Waleed Gaber, Ph.D., Assistant Professor

Brian P. Kelly, Ph.D., Assistant Professor

Yunzhi Peter Yang, Ph.D., Assistant Professor

Herbert D. Zeman, Ph.D., Associate Professor Emeritus, Luminetx Corp.

Marconi is best known for developing the radiotelegraph system, which led to numerous affiliated radio companies worldwide. Marconi shared the 1909 Nobel Prize in Physics with German inventor Karl Ferdinand Bruan for their contributions to the development of wireless telegraphy.

DiBianca was the principal designer of the General Electric 9800 CT scanner, which has examined about 100 million patients since its introduction in 1981. He also designed the first digital radiography system for CT scanners, which allowed a new class of CT exams to be conducted, including spinal disc exams. DiBianca also invented two new types of X-ray detectors, the Kinestatic Charge Detector and the Variable-Resolution X-ray Detector. Throughout his more than 45-year career, DiBianca has garnered more than 20 patents in the United States and internationally.

DiBianca served as head of the Biomedical Engineering and Imaging Department at UTHSC for 17 years before stepping down last year so he could spend less time on administrative work and more time in the classroom. To read a previous feature on DiBianca, see our June 30, 2006, Standout profile at www.memphisdailynews.com.

Dr. Gary Keyes replaced DiBianca as chair of the department.

"Dr. DiBianca's efforts have significantly contributed to Memphis' growing reputation as a leading biotech center," Keyes said. "He has been integral to putting our city on the map."

And DiBianca's work has been important in putting the BMEI department on the map as well, Keyes said.

A place of fine minds

These days, the department is working on several initiatives to expand its presence in the community. Some of them have been in place for many years and others have been seeing tremendous growth recently.

One such venture is the Joint Master's of Science/Ph.D. Program with the University of Memphis. The program began in 1996 and was the first-ever joint degree between the University of Tennessee system and the state's Board of Regents system.

One of the department's premier initiatives is helping the overall economic development in Tennessee through its partnerships with companies such as Smith & Nephew, Medtronic Inc., Saturn and Luminetx Corp. Also, the department is continually supplying new talent to Tennessee industry with its graduates.

Many of the scientists in the BMEI department work in both programs but are based at UTHSC. Drs. Gaber and Yunzhi "Peter" Yang are two examples.

In Gaber's lab, he and several graduate students are studying how tumors grow so they can find a way to stop them. In one area of their research, the group of investigators is focusing on the blood vessels that provide oxygen to tumors.

"We are studying how these tumors grow and how they affect the brain, while making sure that the brain is not damaged," Gaber said.

In another lab right down the hall, Yang is working on tissue regeneration.

Yang, who last year received a three-year, $204,000 grant from the March of Dimes, focuses his research on repairing bone defects in infants. He is working to develop a product that, once implanted into an infant's bone tissue, will attach to the bone and allow the patient's bones to grow back together.

In the other BMEI labs, other researchers are working on instruments that reproduce the natural movements of the body, such as the spine.

In DiBianca's bioimaging lab, both of the X-ray detectors he developed are there. DiBianca is working on improvements for the Variable-Resolution X-ray Detector.

All of the researchers in the department teach classes in addition to various adjunct professors and instructors. In any given year, the joint program between UTHSC and the U of M will have 60 to 65 graduate students, Keyes said. Since the program began a little more than 10 years ago, more than 100 people have graduated from UTHSC.

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