The Biotech Breakdown

Image: Health care applications

G eorgia Tech is at the center of a crossroads, a junction where man and machine meet, where science becomes medicine and unlikely alliances pave new avenues.

From across the full range of scientific inquiry, researchers from a wide spectrum of not only departments, but also institutions are converging to create the Parker H. Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience.

From Georgia Tech, Emory University, the Medical College of Georgia and elsewhere, they are fitting together engineering and biology, electronics and chemistry, to salve humankind's harshest frailties.


T o meet the need for new medical materials, scientists are manipulating nature on the molecular level. For example, Elliot Chaikof and Peter Ludovice are working toward materials to help regenerate cardiovascular tissue by incorporating critical signaling molecules that cause certain cells to migrate. Others are designing films aimed at making drugs more selective and more effective.


U sing advanced imaging and monitoring techniques, researchers such as David Ku, Ajit Yoganathan and Don Giddens are studying the fluid mechanics of blood flow to help design such things as improved artificial heart valves. Raymond Vito, meanwhile, is investigating the mechanical properties of arteries, veins and ligaments, and Robert Guldberg is working with rnechanically stimulated bone growth.

Cellular Engineering

P eering into life at its most basic level, scientists are testing the characteristics of individual cells and their reactions to physical forces. Robert Nerem, for instance, is looking at the effect of blood flow on the biology of cells lining the interior of blood vessels, while Timothy Wick is studying factors that contribute to sickle-cell anemia or malaria. Robert Cargill is investigating the effects of external mechanical forces on cells, particularly as it relates to brain injury.

Drug Design and Delivery

I n an age of designer drugs, scientists at the Petit Institute have taken giant steps in the treatment of cancer, AIDS, hypertension, stroke, emphysema and neurological disorders. Le Zalkow and Edward Burg have already synthesized 125 candidates for treating AIDS and tumors, and new research is beginning regularly. James Powers, meanwhile, is synthesizing compounds to help fight emphysema and coagulation disorders, and Sheldon May is designing and testing new drugs to treat neurological disorders, hypertension an inflammation. Delivery of drugs to the system is the interest of Mark Prausnitz, who is using new techniques such as electric fields, ultrasound and microscopic devices. Image: Using ultrasound


A s doctors ask for better ways to see inside without a scalpel, Institute researchers like Ku and Yoganathan are providing answers with their multi-mode studies, But their collegaues are taking imaging research in other directions as well. Paul Benkeser is looking at new uses for ultrasound in detecting disease, while Norberto Ezquerra studies artificial intelligence in an effort to improve human analysis of MRI or PET results. Larry Hodges shares that goal in his computer vision research.

Interactive Biomedical Technologies

H umans must interact with biomedical technology, and that's the basis for many research projects under way and proposed. For instance, advanced telecommunications and computing technology allows doctor's to train in virtual environments - and help researchers visualize their experiments. With the trend to cost-cutting in medicine, "telemedicine" is drawing attention as scientists seek ways to combine videoconferencing with diagnostic equipment that takes measurements without actually contacting the patient. Other research involves bypassing damaged nerves and creating prostheses that react to nerve impulses.

Molecular and Cell Biology

A s the basis of all medicine is the cell, even more basically the molecule, investigators are looking closely at their interactions. Professor Richard Ikeda is studying specific interactions between DNA and RNA, which carries messages from the genetic strand.

Focusing on individual reactions with enzymes and iron, Ikeda may help end heavy metal poisoning, Yury Chernoff is using a similar, model to study a type of protein connected to neurological disorders, research that could advance treatments'for Alzheimer's disease. Other protein research by Jung Choi, Peggy Girard and Raymond Borkman may help in the understanding of other illnesses that strike the elderly.

Quantitative Analysis and Modeling

A pplications of computing to biological problems are paying dividends in the newly emerging field of bioinformatics. Mark Borodovsky, for example, is further developing pattern recognition methods that led to the software called GeneMark, used in genome sequencing since 1992. In fact, GeneMark made possible the first completely sequenced genome of a freeliving organism, a flu germ. Computer modeling in various forms is at work in practically every biotech lab at Georgia Tech, as the desktop computer has become indispensable to scientists.

Structural Biology

A lso paying off is the work of Loren Williams on the information-transmitting abilities of nucleic acids, perhaps important to the continued development of chemotherapy agents. Genetic studies using molecular biology protocols are also under way by Stephen Quirk and Roger Wartell, the latter possibly useful in battling leukemia. Meanwhile, Gary Schuster and Mostafa El-Sayed are advancing knowledge of DNA with studies of photonucleases, compounds that cleave to DNA when irracated with light. --Hoyt Coffee