Hackensack University Medical Center (HackensackUMC) looms large in the tri-state area’s medical landscape. The center, equipped with 775 beds and the only Level II trauma center in its county, is ranked as the premier medical facility in New Jersey and fourth-best in the entire metro New York City area by U.S. News & World Report. HackensackUMC is also considered one of the 40 top hospitals in the nation in critical specialty areas such as cancer research, cardiology, geriatrics and orthopedics, and its pediatric hospital is highly ranked as well.
Now Stevens is playing a visible role as a research partner and educator for the medical center. Since 2012, Stevens and the medical center have partnered to offer biomedical educational programs to undergraduate and graduate students under a joint agreement. The two institutions also periodically offer cross-appointments of clinical and administrative staff at Stevens and faculty appointment at HackensackUMC.
Cornering cancers, battling bone loss
In one important project, Stevens and HackensackUMC are investigating new ways to battle multiple myeloma (MM), an incurable blood cancer that metastasizes to and destroys bones. MM tumors in bone marrow present a modeling problem that has proven historically difficult to crack; answers would help improve the survival of cancer patients.
In an effort to better understand and treat MM, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have awarded Stevens professor of chemical engineering and materials science Woo Lee and medical center researcher Dr. Jenny Zilberberg nearly $700,000 in support for a promising three-year project. Together they’re investigating a new technology that may enable researchers to reconstruct MM tumors in the lab, using cells carefully biopsied from MM-afflicted patients.
A team of experts from both Stevens and the medical center — one of the nation’s leading MM treatment centers — cultures samples of the cancerous MM cells in a Stevens-patented array device that’s roughly the size and shape of a small honeycomb. Then they introduce both existing cancer medications and promising new therapies to the cells and monitor their effectiveness.
That’s both quicker and safer than testing unknown medicines on patients — and it provides better answers than testing medicines on mouse cells or cultured cell lines, the current methods of doing oncology research.
“It’s important to study cancers using primary human cells,” explains Lee. “In MM, a percentage of cancer cells evade therapy and cause relapse, and those interactions will not show up if you use mouse models or cell lines in your research.”
Within a year or two, if the technology is perfected, clinical trials at the medical center could potentially begin. The research could also pave the way for advances in treatment of breast, prostate and other cancers, as well as produce new medical devices and services.
Lee also collaborates with HackensackUMC on osteoporosis research. This debilitating condition, in which the body consumes its own bone too quickly, affects more than 200 million people worldwide. Utilizing the same Stevens-patented microfluidics technology deployed in cancer research, Stevens and the medical center are investigating improved methods for cultivation of bone cells outside the body for application to bone diseases. Both NIH and NSF support this research.
A collaboration that will continue
Heart health is being addressed by the partners, as well. Biomedical engineering professor Vikki Hazelwood Ph.D. ’07 and a Stevens Ph.D. student work closely with medical center cardiologist Dr. Gregory Simonian to analyze and improve outcomes for abdominal aneurysm patients who have been treated with stent grafts.
“Our research analyzes current graft technology design, as well as patients’ characteristics and geometry, in an effort to reduce risk occurrence of postsurgical leaks,” explains Hazelwood.
Additional project partnerships between Stevens and the medical center are underway or planned in infection detection, data analysis and allergy research, among other areas.
“Partnerships with Stevens have contributed to the medical center both academically and in terms of advancing medical research,” concludes Dr. Jeffrey Boscamp, vice president and chief academic officer for HackensackUMC and physician-in-chief at Joseph M. Sanzari Children’s Hospital. “We are pleased to be working together to educate our healthcare team and create better patient outcomes through research that will yield important new findings and treatment protocols in the future."