Tobet: Positive lessons from hard times propel us forward

Stu Tobet, Director of the School of Biomedical Engineering at CSU
Stu Tobet, Director of the School of Biomedical Engineering at CSU

Stuart Tobet, Director of the School of Biomedical Engineering at CSU, opened SBME’s most recent newsletter with his thoughts on pandemic-driven advances in science and education.

COVID-19 has provided the world with an opportunity to think anew. What has the past wrought and what will the future of SBME bring? Rarely a good idea to play the game of who had it worse! We’ll do better to look at what we have learned and what we can do even better going forward. Here are 2 examples to consider.

The COVID-19 pandemic launched one of the largest scientific races for vaccines in human history. It currently remains a race with over 90 entrants, and to this point 3 entries have reached the level of Emergency Use Authorization in the United States (Pfizer BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson/Janssen), while several others are available in other parts of the world. To put the process in perspective, it is worth a brief consideration of vaccine history that goes back many years. By anecdote, the history traces back over perhaps two thousand years for measles and smallpox. More recently, in 1796 Edward Jenner ushered in the modern vaccine era when he reported his testing of whether an inoculate from cowpox could protect humans from smallpox. In 1879 Pasteur created the first attenuated vaccine for cholera, and in 1952 the Salk team was testing a killed polio virus vaccine. In 1965 we saw use of a part of the hepatitis B virus toward a vaccine. The ‘technology’ evolved from live virus, to dead virus, to selected proteins to the current step into the world of providing nucleic acid templates for host cells to make viral protein components. The current templates come in 2 flavors: either DNA carried by adenoviral vectors or RNA carried by liposomal nanoparticles. Adenoviral vectors require host cell receptors to get into cells. Liposomal nanoparticles are randomly taken into cells that they encounter. There is a dearth of information on the impacts of random viral protein synthesis over time from the perspective of host cell populations. CSU entered the vaccine race with technology originally developed by SBME advisory board member Ray Goodrich, also the executive director of the CSU Infectious Disease Research Center. The CSU entry SolaVAXTM is based on a strategy that Dr. Goodrich developed to clear pathogens from stored blood. It is based on a riboflavin enhancement of nucleic acid breakdown in the presence of ultraviolet light. This method allows inoculation or vaccination of ‘virus’ without its nucleic acid infection instructions. In the long run, people should be able to choose their vaccine based on understanding the underlying technology of their choice. To ignore vaccines is to repeat the follies of many years past. However, as engineers, we would do well not to ignore the technologies of choice either.

Before the pandemic, CSU was already taking educational strategies to new heights. The fastest growing population of graduate students in the School of Biomedical Engineering are those in our Master of Engineering online program! When the pandemic struck, these students did not blink an eye and were able to continue uninterrupted, already comfortable in their academic process. Before the pandemic, others around CSU were already developing tools for virtual reality (VR) approaches to education, particularly for human anatomy. In the summer of 2020, the anatomy group successfully and ambitiously moved their VR platform to remote instruction by shipping computers and headsets to the homes of around 90 students! This takes education from hybrid to Hybrid4. Four SBME undergraduate students also jumped into the future by participating in a senior design project to pair augmented reality (AR) with medical ultrasound imaging – a project led by Tod Clapp and myself. The hope is that these steps will help lead to the next educational frontier! The last year-plus may have been difficult, but the experiences will be helpful for providing a brighter future.

Dr. Stuart Tobet
Director, School of Biomedical Engineering