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Home > Global Health Matters Sep/Oct 2020 > Dr Bruce Tromberg, NIBIB: Developing biomedical technology to support global health research Print

Developing biomedical technology to support global health research at NIBIB

September / October 2020 | Volume 19, Number 5

Q and A with Bruce Tromberg, PhD

Headshot of NIBIB Director Dr. Bruce Tromberg. 

Bruce Tromberg, PhD

Dr. Bruce Tromberg is the director of the NIH’s National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB), where he oversees a $400 million per year portfolio of research programs focused on developing engineering, physical science and computational technologies for their application in biology and medicine. In addition, he leads NIBIB’s $500 million Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics Tech (RADx Tech) innovation initiative to increase SARS-CoV-2 testing capacity and performance. Together with Fogarty, NIBIB is a partner on the Harnessing Data Science for Health Discovery and Innovation in Africa (DS-I Africa) project, led by the NIH Common Fund.

What is NIBIB’s role at NIH?

Our formal mission is leading the development and accelerating the application of biomedical technologies. A large part of that is data science, which includes modeling, computation and machine intelligence. We use these approaches to simulate or emulate biologic systems or devices and their interactions, and to extract information - with images and sensors - so we can gain further insight into those systems. We are working to advance engineered biology, which involves treating cellular systems, multicellular systems, tissues and entire organs as engineerable devices that can potentially be reprogrammed to prevent, slow, or reverse disease. We develop sensors and point-of-care devices. These can be wearable sensors that are based on a variety of different mechanisms including photonic, acoustic or electrical types of sensing for transducing biologic processes into signals that can be measured and quantified. These technologies are rapidly moving into implantable devices where the sensors have been engineered to be very specific for chemistries that are critical for monitoring and predicting disease.

We’re also very engaged in supporting imaging technologies, which can span from devices that are small enough to be at the bedside, to very large physics imaging devices. With increasing attention to innovation, computation, new materials and costs, we can reduce the size and the complexity of these devices, and still be able to extract very complex and rich information. Finally, we are working to develop new therapeutic devices, many of which are completely noninvasive.

What is the potential of DS-I Africa?

What’s driving a lot of our progress is the fact that we have access to technologies that are entirely new and much of this is coming from the consumer device industry. In fact, there’s a very thin line separating what we think of as consumer devices from medical devices, and we're seeing a convergence in these technologies. Many of the consumer devices are helping us prevent disease and are used in home care settings. It's clear much of the innovation and entrepreneurial community is interested in leveraging this kind of technology, which necessarily will involve a lot of data generation, hence, the great partnership between innovative engineering and data science.

What excites you about DS-I Africa?

For a number of years, I’ve been helping develop African bioengineering expertise through a spectral imaging network led by Professor Jérémie Zoueu at the National Polytechnic Institute in Cote d'Ivoire. It’s evolved into a training and education course that examines new technologies, develops an understanding of how they work and encourages their repurposing for new applications to meet the emerging needs of the population. We believe this is foundational for the future of health and that building technology innovation networks is the way to get there. That's what we're hoping to do through our DS-I Africa program as well. This will help African scientists understand, prevent and detect disease, and advance their ability to personalize diagnosis and treatment. Ultimately, this will extend the population’s health span, reduce costs and barriers to access, and continue to drive innovation.

How else is NIBIB engaged in global health?

One of the recent major programs that we've developed and launched in collaboration with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is the NIH Technology Accelerator Challenge (NTAC). The challenge is a million-dollar competition for developing noninvasive devices to leverage those types of consumer technologies to diagnose, track and assess response to therapy for diseases of the vasculature, with a focus on malaria, sickle cell and anemia. We recently announced the prize winners who came up with some quite stunning projects. Our goal is to drive innovation and commercialization and to encourage widespread dissemination of these technologies.

How is NIBIB contributing to the COVID-19 effort?

The novel coronavirus pandemic has NIH and NIBIB working around the clock on addressing global needs. In particular, having received $500 million from Congress to increase COVID-19 diagnostic testing, NIBIB is leveraging its Point-of-Care Technologies Research Network (POCTRN) - a consortium, which has 13 years of experience in developing technologies to meet clinical needs - to lead the RADx Tech initiative. RADx Tech is leveraging the POCTRN network and expertise to accelerate the process from idea to clinical validation, to scale-up and manufacturing for new point-of-care diagnostic technologies for COVID-19.

NIBIB has compressed what is normally a five- to six-year process down to five to six months with the goal of getting millions more accurate, fast, accessible tests for many different populations and situations, to add to the national capacity. As of October, the program is supporting a combined portfolio of 22 companies - including a New Zealand company - expected to increase the U.S. test capacity by 2.7 million tests per day by the end of 2020. In addition, the technologies developed through RADx are expected to result in faster, cheaper tests for a range of infectious diseases that are major health concerns in low-resource settings.

This type of stem-to-stern support is unprecedented at NIH, and we think it is a model that can be duplicated when there is a need for rapid, intensive development of innovative technologies in the U.S. and worldwide.

Note: this article is based on Dr. Tromberg’s August 12th DS-I Africa presentation.

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