Green and Vidal speak at TEDxJHU
Two faculty members from the Department of Biomedical Engineering were among nine researchers, educators, entrepreneurs, artists, and community activists featured at the fifth annual TEDxJHU speaker series, held last weekend on the Homewood campus. This year’s theme was “Forging the Future,” and Rene Vidal, professor, and Jordan Green, associate professor, inspired listeners with stories about the promise their research holds.
A leader in computer vision, machine learning, and medical robotics, Vidal is revolutionizing the field of medicine by developing mathematical models that enable computers to make predictions from biomedical data.
Vidal told attendees that after applying to several positions in the field of electrical engineering and computer science, he was surprised when the late Murray Sachs contacted him for a faculty position within the Johns Hopkins Department of Biomedical Engineering. Sachs reassured him that medicine was evolving into a discipline that transcends the life sciences. He predicted that medicine was becoming a computational science, and that this would be the great revolution of the 21st century—a revolution that Vidal was eager to join.
“Sadly, Murray passed away exactly one week ago, but his dream of making medicine a computational science is more alive than ever,” said Vidal.
Fifteen years later, the signs of a revolution in data science are beginning to take shape, Vidal said. He referenced Uber’s driverless cars, Apple’s Siri, IBM’s Watson, and Amazon Go as revolutionary technologies that are changing how we interact with the world.
Vidal explained that data is growing at an explosive rate, but this data is too big and too complex to be analyzed by humans. He is addressing this challenge through his advances in the field of machine learning—teaching machines to recognize objects and make predictions from data.
“The next revolution in artificial intelligence will be to develop machines that can figure out what’s informative in data versus what’s not informative,” said Vidal. “This is like creating a digital Sherlock Holmes.”
He went on to explain how these applications could take many forms. If we could train machines to detect, count, and classify blood cells—a current project in Vidal’s lab—we can create a diagnostic blood test that gives immediate results. If we could record the activity of all neurons, perhaps we could understand the connectivity of the brain. If we could figure out the connections and activations between genes, maybe we will find a cure for cancer. Or maybe 50 years from now, hospitals will have data from every patient around the world, and a simple application could scan the database for similar cases to identify effective treatments for a particular set of symptoms.
“I cannot help but reminisce on the many revolutions that have changed my life,” said Vidal. “Don’t be afraid of the revolution that is about to forge your own future. It will change your life in the same way that data science has changed mine.”
Green’s talk was equally engaging. He told the audience about a pivotal moment in his life that ultimately led him to a career in the fields of molecular and cell engineering and drug delivery. As an engineering student at Carnegie Mellon Univeristy, Green took an interview for an internship opportunity where he asked his interviewer what he found to be most exciting in the field of engineering. The answer? Toothpaste.
The interviewer explained that consumers judge the quality of toothpaste by assessing whether the tongue glides easily over the teeth after brushing, an indicator that the mouth is clean. To create an even better clean feeling, the interviewer explained how engineers add a slippery chemical to the formula, making the tongue skate over the teeth more smoothly. According to the interviewer, consumers think they are getting a better product even though the added chemical does not clean teeth more effectively.
“I decided right then and there that this was not what I wanted to do with my life,” Green told the audience. “I wanted to help people and work in an industry that was focused on something that people really needed.”
After deciding to pursue research in biomedical engineering, Green became interested in developing nanomedicines to deliver codes that can program cells in the body, similar to how people use codes to program computers. He explained that each cell in the body follows a program, driven by its environmental inputs and DNA “code,” that directs its behavioral output. This program goes haywire in cancer cells, he said, causing them to grow uncontrollably.
Green hopes to reprogram cancer cells by introducing into them new DNA or RNA instructions, allowing the cells to heal themselves. One challenge, he explained, is getting these DNA codes past the cellular defense mechanisms. To do this, Green is harnessing the power of viruses, which have naturally evolved ways to enter cells and deliver copies of the viral DNA. Since real viruses spread throughout the body, hijacking and killing cells as they go, Green is using biodegradable plastics to engineer synthetic viruses, called nanoparticles, that can deliver DNA instructions safely and effectively.
“These nanoparticles can deliver the code and then get out of the way, biodegrade, and not cause any problems or mayhem within the cell,” said Green.
He and his team are also creating artificial cells by coating biodegradable plastic shells with different proteins that can communicate with the body’s own immune cells. Based on the function of the proteins, these artificial cells can be designed to treat a variety of diseases. In the case of cancer, these proteins program the body’s immune cells to “search and destroy.” Green’s artificial cells instruct the immune cells to divide, raising an army that searches for and attacks cancer cells without harming the surrounding healthy tissue, he said.
Similar to how the immune system prevents people from catching the same cold twice, Green said that treatment with his artificial cells would essentially eliminate the possibility of relapse in cancer patients.
“If the same type of cancer were to ever recur and come back, the immune system is already revved up and trained to kill that new cancer before you even know it’s there,” explained Green. “This could revolutionize treatment for cancer patients.”
Green closed his talk with an inspirational message to the audience: “To all of you out there looking to make your mark on the world, I urge you, don’t settle for slippery coatings or changing perceptions of reality. Go out there, follow your passion, and change reality itself.”
The entire TEDxJHU event can be viewed on the Johns Hopkins University Facebook page