UCSF Joins Caltech in Creative Problem Solving to Advance Health Care

By Juliana Bunim

John Roberts, MD, and colleagues at UCSF Medical Center.

John Roberts, MD, left, chief of the department of transplantation at UCSF -- with Flavio Vincenti, MD, center, professor of clinical medicine, and Ranjan Chanda, MD, a fellow, both in the department of nephrology -- is among the UCSF physicians participating in an interdisciplinary partnership with colleagues at Caltech.

UCSF and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have joined forces in a unique collaboration to develop novel technology leading to scientific advances in clinical care.

The relationship currently consists of periodic meetings between UCSF physicians and Caltech scientists during which important clinical problems and possible solutions are presented, all with the hope that the talent pool at both universities, combined with an entrepreneurial spirit, will further advance health care innovation.    

At the first UCSF/Caltech Innovation Symposium in 2010, 12 UCSF clinicians from various departments, including surgery, cardiology, interventional radiology, oncology, neurology, anesthesiology, fetal and pediatric surgery, diabetes, and ophthalmology, presented several cases to five Caltech professors.

While the UCSF faculty including Michael Harrison, MD, director emeritus of the Fetal Treatment Center, Marshall Stoller, MD, medical director of the Urinary Stone Center at UCSF Medical Center, and David Teitel, MD, chief of the Division of Pediatric Cardiology and medical director of the UCSF Pediatric Heart Center, presented broad stroke clinical wish lists, amazingly the Caltech faculty came up with feasible approaches that could potentially enable these innovations.

“We thought here are these Caltech people who are world experts in chemical solutions and know more about devices and new drugs,” said John Roberts, MD, chief of the department of transplantation at UCSF. “And then we had our own experts who each had a clinical problem they were trying to solve but were stuck. When they gave their presentation the Caltech guys knew immediately how to solve them.”

A follow up meeting at Caltech in January turned the tables. Nine Caltech professors presented their research interests to the same UCSF faculty in an effort to foster thinking about how their basic research might serve to address common clinical problems.

Solving Real Problems in Human Health

The UCSF-Caltech interdisciplinary meetings have produced several immediate results, pushing the boundaries of creative problem solving.

When UCSF fetal surgeons led by Harrison were seeking a solution to the devastating problem of membrane rupture after fetal intervention they turned to Caltech’s world renowned organic chemistry group headed by Caltech Nobel laureate Robert Grubbs, PhD.

The joint team has developed a new approach by pre-sealing the fetal membranes with a synthetic adhesive before puncture. This combined effort is one of two joint projects that have been funded through the Chancellor Susan Desmond-Hellmann’s office at UCSF and President Jean-Lou Chameau’s office at Caltech.

“Many scientists and engineers desire to solve real problems in human health,”
said Grubbs. 

Meanwhile, Stoller, medical director of the Urinary Stone Center at UCSF Medical Center, is collaborating with Grubbs to develop a novel micro-bubble injectable system to break apart painful urinary stones, reducing the need for extracorporeal shock wave lithotripsy, which uses shock waves to break a kidney stone into small pieces. Administered in an outpatient setting, the goal of the new procedure is to fragment the stone by injecting the cavitation bubble into the urinary system, allowing it to pass uneventfully through the patient's urinary system.

“Many scientists and engineers desire to solve real problems in human health,” said Grubbs. “The UCSF group is working on the most critical clinical problems in modern medicine and can define the key issues. It is fun to work with the best.”

Collaborating with Scott Fraser, MD, and Jeff Fingler, MD of Caltech, Daniel Schwartz, MD, associate professor of ophthalmology and director of the retinal service at UCSF, has helped develop OCT angiography, a non-invasive means to study the small blood vessels of the retina without the need for intravenous dye injection. OCT angiography may have broad application in the early diagnosis of diabetic retinopathy and age-related macular degeneration.

This is not the first collaboration between the two universities. In 2009, researchers from Caltech and UCSF teamed up to study how different types of pain is detected by different subsets of pain-sensing neurons in the skin. Their findings were published in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

UCSF physicians Schwartz and Roberts believe that involving innovative clinicians at UCSF with Caltech scientists in a more structured relationship could expand these collaborations and the potential wealth of clinical advances derived from UCSF/Caltech collaborations is only beginning to be explored.

“It’s somewhat like a dating service,” said Roberts. “We both know people here at UCSF and then know some people at Caltech and we’re trying to get them together and get people interested.”

The mission of California Institute of Technology is to expand human knowledge and benefit society through research integrated with education. Faculty investigate the most challenging, fundamental problems in science and technology.

Photo by Susan Merrell

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