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Three Duke Biomedical Engineers Elected to National Academy of Inventors

Izatt, Ramanujam and Vo-Dinh honored for innovative photonics-based health technologies

The National Academy of Inventors (NAI) has elected three faculty members from Duke University’s Department of Biomedical Engineering to its 2017 class of Fellows. 

They are: Joseph Izatt, the Michael J. Fitzpatrick Professor of Engineering and Professor of Ophthalmology; Nimmi Ramanujam, the Robert W. Carr, Jr., Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Professor of Global Health and Pharmacology and the director of the Global Women’s Health Technologies Center; and Tuan Vo-Dinh, the Goodson Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Professor of Chemistry and the director of the Fitzpatrick Institute for Photonics.

Founded in 2010, the NAI recognizes academic inventors for their prolific spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on the quality of life, economic development and the welfare of society. With today’s announcement, the Pratt School of Engineering faculty now includes seven members of the academy, with five from the biomedical engineering department––professor Ashutosh Chilkoti was elected in 2014 and professor Jennifer West in 2016.

Izatt’s research focuses on the application of optical technologies for non-invasive, high-resolution imaging and sensing in living biological tissues. He is considered one of the leading experts on optical coherence tomography (OCT), a medical imaging technique that allows researchers to peer beneath the surface of tissue to diagnose and treat diseases. Izatt’s lab creates systems for use in noninvasive medical diagnostics, in-vivo tomographic microscopes, and high-throughput three-dimensional small animal imaging systems for genomics studies.

Izatt worked closely with Dr. Cynthia Toth of Duke’s Department of Ophthalmology to develop the first use of a research hand-held spectral domain OCT system for infant examination and the first intra-operative OCT-guided ophthalmic surgical system.

Joe Izatt (Photo by Duke Photography)

"I am very honored to be inducted as a Fellow in the NAI. In our field of biomedical engineering, patenting and licensing technologies is an important means by which our basic and translational research can directly impact society,” said Izatt. “Together with many of my students, trainees, clinical, and industrial collaborators, I am proud to have patented over 60 medical imaging technologies, the majority of which are licensed to companies bringing new patient care technologies to market around the world." 

Ramanujam established the Tissue Optical Spectroscopy Laboratory at Duke in 2005, where she developed innovative optical strategies to examine thick tissues using the principles of optical spectroscopy, optical sectioning microscopy, and molecular imaging. Utilizing these strategies, Ramanujam and her team are examining how to create innovations that bring complex referral services to the primary care setting for cervical cancer prevention, strategies to mitigate residual disease and recurrence for women undergoing breast cancer therapy and low cost ablative methods as an alterative to surgical excision.

Nimmi Ramanujam (Photo from Duke Photography)

Through her work at the Global Women’s Health Technologies Center, Ramanujam investigates new ways to improve diagnosis  and treatment of breast and cervical cancer, and organizes programs aimed to increase the retention of women and underrepresented minorities in STEM fields, both locally and globally. The poster child for Ramanujam’s research is the Pocket Colposcope, a compact tool that enables healthcare workers to more easily screen for and diagnose cervical cancer in settings with limited resources. 

“It is so exciting to be acknowledged for the work we are doing to improve women's lives through technology, and in particular our efforts to address the burgeoning health disparities that exist in medically underserved regions locally and globally,” said Ramanujam. “It is also great see biophotonics in the spotlight - I get to share this honor with my outstanding colleagues, Drs. Izatt and Vo Dinh, who are both pioneers in the field of biomedical optical imaging.”

Vo-Dinh has pioneered the development of a new generation of gene probes using a technique called surface enhanced Raman Scattering (SERS) detection with ‘molecular sentinels’ that are able to detect the presence of low abundance molecules and nucleic acid biomarkers. This technique has been used to improve the early detection and diagnosis of cancer, with additional applications in high-throughput screenings and systems biology research.

Tuan Vo-Dinh (Photo from Duke Photography)In addition to his work with the SERS method, Vo-Dinh is developing a novel multifunctional gold nanostar probe that can be used with multiple scanning techniques, including PET, MRI and CT to provide physicians with an intraoperative margin delineation. With over 45 patents, Vo-Dinh has also developed a wide variety of biophotonics technologies ranging from laser-induced fluorescence for direct detection of tumors without physical biopsy and a multifunctional biochip for global health and point-of-care disease diagnosis to plasmonics systems for nanoparticle-mediated photothermal therapy and immunotherapy in order to treat cancer and induce a long-term vaccine effect.

“Recognition by the NAI is the ultimate honor for an engineer and inventor,” says Vo-Dinh. “I share this honor with all my co-workers, postdocs and students, who have collectively contributed to all our achievements over the years.”

“The election of three of our distinguished BME faculty this year to the National Academy of Inventors is fitting recognition of their outstanding inventions that are reshaping healthcare globally,” said Ashutosh Chilkoti, the chair of Duke BME. “To have one faculty member selected by the Academy in any year is cause for celebration, but to have three selected from our department in the same year is unprecedented. I am delighted that the Academy has chosen to recognize these stellar faculty.”

The NAI Fellows will be inducted on April 5, 2018 in Washington, DC. Andrew Hirshfeld, the US Commissioner for Patents, will provide the keynote address for the ceremony.