Christopher H. Contag is the James and Kathleen Cornelius Chair and Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Microbiology & Molecular Genetics at Michigan State University. He is director of MSU's Institute for Quantitative Health Science and Engineering and chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering.
IQ is a research collaboration among the colleges of Engineering, Human Medicine and Natural Science at MSU. IQ is devoted to basic and applied research at the interface of life sciences, engineering, information sciences, and other physical and mathematical sciences. Contag discusses IQ's mission, vision, and impact.
Russ White: It's a pleasure to welcome Christopher Contag back to MSU Today. Chris is the director of the Institute for Quantitative Health, Science and Engineering at MSU. Chris, welcome back.
Chris Contag: Thank you. It's nice to be back again and talk about some of the work we're doing here.
White: IQ is really quite unique on campus and nationally. You're bringing together faculty from a number of colleges, in particular Human Medicine, Engineering and Natural Science, and converging these disciplines under one roof. So, explain your vision for IQ and tell us how this environment is working so far.
Contag: The leadership at MSU put this concept together some years ago talking about how to bridge disciplines and how to bring people together. They've asked me to come and work with them to try to develop a program where the three colleges and multiple different departments converge on really important topics in biomedical research. And we continue to work on areas where there's convergence between medicine and engineering, solving some of the most pressing problems in medicine with engineering solutions.
White: IQ has been open now since the fall of 2016. I'm sure initially you had to get ramped up and staffed, and you continue to staff, but exciting things are starting to happen. What are some of the latest developments at IQ?
Contag: So, we've created a group of faculty who are really interdisciplinary in their own right, but who also work with other faculty to really push the envelope of biomedical research. Some of the new things happening are rapid diagnostics for infectious diseases, rapid diagnostics for multiple sclerosis and diabetes. We have some really amazing work at looking at how to control cellular function, how to control a cell from a distance. And applications for that would be controlling how dopaminergic neurons in Parkinson's patients release dopamine to try to treat the disease using external signals.
So, there are some really amazing innovations that are stretching across disciplines. And the project on Parkinson's is particularly interesting because it uses a protein that was cloned out of fish that senses magnetic fields. And so, this is like the perfect example of how fields can converge to solve problems, so that the group of faculty working on this project is using this magnetic sensing protein to control neuronal function or to control how heart cells function, and to be able to do it from a distance so that you can better manage how a cell participates in the healing process as opposed to being a problem in a particular disease.
White: Explaining some of these research projects to the man on the street Chris, why should he take notice? How do these projects help everyday people?
Contag: So, the approach we've taken in IQ is to really break the problem down to its simplest parts and try to solve it with the simplest solution. And by doing that, we've come up with some really interesting approaches to how to treat disease, how to diagnose disease, and how to really have the most benefit for people who are suffering from diseases including cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's, some of the most pressing problems facing humanity today from a health perspective.
And we’re looking at the fundamental principles that can be addressed using new approaches and by integrating disciplines. So, the reason people should be interested in what we're doing is because it affects their lives and the lives of their family and friends as far as how to better detect and manage disease.
This is catalyzing a change in the way we think about medicine. Rather than treating disease, we should try to preserve health, because we're developing the tools that allow us to diagnose disease early and that allow us to intervene at a very early time point. And if we think about it that way, it's no longer medicine but rather health. And if we're targeting the very foundation of the disease, or the molecular basis of the disease, it's really precise or precision health.
So, the concept of medicine has moved from medicine to precision medicine. We'd like to drive it even further back in the disease course and begin thinking about precision health. How do we develop the tools that allow us to detect diseases very early and then intervene when the patient is still healthy, prior to the symptoms occurring? So the reason it's so important for the everyday person on the street is that there's a fundamental change occurring in medicine, and they need to be aware of it. When they go see their physician they should ask, "What would my genotype tell me about my health?" They should ask the question, "If I subscribe to 23andMe and have my genotype determined, would that benefit the way you interpret the results that you're looking at today?"
And I think people need to be more involved in their own healthcare. By paying attention to the innovations coming out of places like IQ, Institute For Quantitative Health Sciences and Engineering, and attention to other innovations in biomedicine, they can better manage their own health. And I think that's what's really coming out of this whole revolution in healthcare.
White: And Chris, I really like a line you've used that this is not a brave new world, it's bravery in a new world, explain that.
Contag: This arose in the conversation where we're talking about how things are changing, and how medicine is changing, and the fact that we can do things today that seem somewhat scary to many people. The fact that we can edit genomes that can change the genetic code we've been doing for years, but now it's becoming easier and easier. And there's some concern that this will change our world to an environment like the book, A Brave New World.
But the truth is, is that, the scientists who are pushing the envelope in these different areas, they're going into the unknown trying to ask the question, "How do I solve this problem?" So, the scientists that we work with I would describe as really brave individuals tackling some of the most challenging problems and creating a new world through their bravery and through their willingness to take on the unknown and try to answer questions that haven't been addressed before.
White: Chris Contag is my guest on MSU Today, and Chris what are you hoping to accomplish in the short-term, say the new academic year, and then where do you see IQ heading in the next 5 or 10 years?
Contag: So, some of the things we're doing in IQ are starting educational programs. Because IQ also supports the Department of Biomedical Engineering, and Biomedical Engineering is a new program at MSU. We're recruiting new graduate students into our program, and that's a real focus of what the Biomedical Engineering Department is doing. We're anticipating that we'll have an undergraduate program in the next couple of years. And so, we're ramping up to ensure that we have a training program that fits the philosophy of convergence in science, blending medicine and engineering and solving real world problems with fundamental engineering principles.
And so, in the upcoming year, we'll really be focusing on education and how we better develop our educational programs to meet the needs of the students, at first the graduate level, where we're training PhD's and PhD level students, and then we'll expand from that to include a program for undergraduates in Biomedical Engineering.
The institute itself is really directed at research. And the Biomedical Engineering Department is a part of that. The IQ mission is a research mission and builds on the strengths of MSU from across the different colleges to push into new areas of science.
So, some of the things we're tackling now relate to diagnosis and early detection, and we'll move from there to developing new therapies for those diseases that could be detected early.
White: And Chris, those joining in on our conversation are going to hear more from you because you're going to start introducing us to some of these faculty working with you at IQ. Tell us what you hope to accomplish with these conversations?
Contag: We've recruited faculty from some of the best academic centers from around the world. And over the course of the next few months, you'll be hearing from them, people who have engineered cells to respond to magnetic fields, people who have developed rapid diagnostic tools for diseases like multiple sclerosis and diabetes. You'll hear from people who are asking fundamental questions about aging. How do we age? What are the changes at the molecular level within cells that relate to age, and can we intervene with those processes to prolong life?
Some of the things we've been addressing in the institute are, how do we ensure that the population leads long, healthy lives? We sometimes think of it as a hundred years of health for 100% of our population. How do we achieve that goal? And the work looking at how cells age and how that aging relates to cancer pertains to exactly that question. And, you'll be hearing about those topics.
You'll also be hearing about how the heart develops during gestation. When a human or a mouse is developing, how does its heart form? And, by studying that, we can begin to think about how we can engineer those tissues so that if someone has a failing heart or part of the heart has failed, how we can repair it and reconstruct that damaged tissue, rather than trying to replace it with a heart transplant.
At MSU we've developed a center for rare isotopes called FRIB. FRIB is going to generate really unique, interesting molecules that can be used in healthcare. And so, we've recruited Kurt Zinn to IQ, to think about how we can take those rare isotopes created by FRIB and use those for new therapies for cancer and new diagnostic tools for neurological diseases and other diseases where we can develop new probes using these rare isotopes.
And so, you'll be hearing from some really amazing scientists who are thinking about really big questions and fundamental principles in medicine and how we can leverage the tremendous strengths at MSU to really address these problems in a fundamental way that'll have a dramatic impact on healthcare across the country.
White: Summarize for our listeners what you want them to know about IQ at MSU.
Contag: So IQ is this really interesting experiment on how you blend disciplines to solve real world problems. And, it's been really fun to watch faculty and to watch professors and students and their trainees come into this environment and say, "Wow! I get to address problems from any number of disciplines. I really get to think about questions in a unique way." And you see everybody's minds kind of open up as they walk into the building as they think about these problems in a unique way.
And, that's what's really compelling is to see that every day, the people who work in IQ are thinking about, "How do I solve these problems and how do I address them from a variety of different directions," and no longer feeling like they have to stick within a chemistry approach or a physics approach or a biology approach or an engineering approach, but rather, "How do I work across all those disciplines to really make a fundamental change?"
And, you see it at every level from the undergraduates who walk into the building and to the professors who come from really prestigious universities to work together to solve these problems. And we see amazing transformation in how people think, how they interact and how they work together in a very thoughtful way. And rather than creating an environment where there's competition between these investigators, there's collaboration and there's interactions that really will contribute to our understanding of health and disease in ways that weren't possible before. That's what's really exciting, and it's really amazing to watch the changes every day as you walk into the building.
White: Christopher Contag, thank you so much for sharing your insights with us today.
Contag: Thank you so much for having me, this has been a great interview.
White: That's Dr. Christopher Contag, he's the Director of the Institute for Quantitative Health, Science and Engineering at Michigan State University. He's also the Chair of the new Biomedical Engineering Department, and there's a lot more online at iq.msu.edu. And I'm Russ White for MSU Today.
MSU Today airs Sunday afternoons at 4:00 on 105.1 FM and AM 870.