Alyssa Panitch became the fifth permanent leader of the unique biomedical engineering partnership between the Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University in July. An experienced researcher, educator, and administrator, Panitch most recently served as executive associate dean of engineering at the University of California, Davis.
Panitch’s research focuses on inflammation as a driver of disease, and her work over the years has resulted in dozens of patents and several technologies licensed to startup companies. In this conversation, she talks about her career, her experiences, and why the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering is the perfect next step for her.
What makes the Coulter Department a compelling and attractive place to continue your career?
Several things. From a research perspective, Coulter BME has strength in many critical areas, and I really love the blend of basic and translational science. But the translational piece is particularly exciting. Throughout my career, it's been really important to me to work with physicians, try to understand unmet medical needs, and then focus my research on trying to solve those unmet needs and spin them out to the community. I think from an infrastructure perspective, from the people who are here, and from a philosophy perspective, the Department embodies that, and does that. Then, one of the other things that I have been really impressed with, even before I applied, was the attention to diversity, equity, and inclusion; it's clear from everything that comes out from the program that that's really important. I've spent my life in public university systems because community engagement, economic improvement, and being able to bring education to first-generation students and people who are traditionally marginalized is critically important. I really feel like the Department embodies that.
What are the challenges and opportunities facing us in the years ahead — both as an educational and research organization and as a field more broadly?
Biomedical engineering has huge opportunities, as we've learned through the pandemic. How do we make sure that we're positioned properly to go after the next big thing? Covid just showed us that we need to be prepared to rapidly understand how you develop and deliver new vaccines and that we need sensitive techniques for testing to see if someone's positive with emerging diseases. We need cures. For example, we know long Covid is a thing, but why is it a thing? And what can we do to overcome those kinds of things? We're well positioned for all of that, and there are huge opportunities there. We have this tremendous partnership with Emory that’s hardwired in, but how do we build that more? I think that's a huge opportunity, to really further bring the two institutions together — and not just physicians, but blending basic science at Emory with other schools at Georgia Tech. The opportunities are almost endless; the challenge is focus. Where do we want to focus our energy? There are only so many resources and so much time.
The other big challenge, I think, on the education side is that demographics are changing. In Georgia, we're probably in pretty good shape, because people are going to be wanting to leave the West, where there's no water and everything's on fire. But I think we have to be mindful of the fact that demographics are changing, there won't be as many students of traditional age coming to college. How do we serve other populations to make sure that we can maintain our vibrant community? Thinking ahead about that is going to be critical.
"The opportunities are almost endless; the challenge is focus. Where do we want to focus our energy? There are only so many resources and so much time."
One of the topics you touched on several times in the interview process was diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice, and weaving that throughout our research and educational enterprises. What does that look and feel like? How do you bake that in even more?
We talk often about global engineering and the fact that we need low-cost diagnostics for places that don't have electricity or running water or the kinds of infrastructure that we think of in the United States. Well, we have communities in the United States that don't have running water and electricity. So, we need to bring that philosophy back into the United States into some of the things that we do and think about low-cost healthcare, low-cost diagnostics, low-cost medical devices and therapeutics. In other words, how do we serve all communities? It will be very important to have that discussion often. It's crucial.
We need to be teaching this to our students, graduate students, postdocs and other researchers, too. I could rattle off a dozen examples where we didn't have diverse engineering teams and so we have flawed devices. There are soap dispensers that don't recognize dark skin. There are self-driving cars that don't recognize African Americans as human. Really? What went wrong there? We have to make sure we have diverse perspectives and are really thinking about things; otherwise, we're going to engineer flawed devices. And beyond that, there's research going on that shows that cells from females and cells from males don't respond the same way in culture. And most certainly, cells from people with different genetic backgrounds don't respond the same way either. Remembering these kinds of things as you're developing medical technologies is important, and making sure that we carry that through our classes and training activities will be important. I know that work is underway, and it must be deliberate, continuous work.
Let’s talk a bit about you. In recent years, your research has focused on inflammation as a driver of disease. Tell us about the work you’ve been doing in that area.
Sort of tongue-in-cheek, I would say that for the past 10-15 years, our research has been focused on changing the way pharma thinks about drugs. Most drugs are either small molecules that we deliver to cells to change signaling function in the cell or antibodies that we deliver to block cell receptors and change the function of the cell. The perspective of my lab is that if we change the environment in which the cell lives, then the cell will adapt to that environment and change its function. Rather than acting directly on the cell, we act on the cell environment — what we call the extracellular matrix. We design macromolecular drugs, long-chain polymers or biological polymers that we can target to disease tissue to change the cell’s environment and thereby change the way the cell is functioning to try to influence healthy tissue healing.
One example is when you have a diseased blood vessel and you need to have a stent put in. The physician goes in with a balloon catheter, they inflate the balloon to push open the blood vessel, and then they place a stent. When they push really hard on the inside of the blood vessel to open it up, they damage the inside of the blood vessel. And when that happens, the body sees damaged tissue and tries to repair it. It's going to cause an inflammatory response, because we need some sort of inflammatory response for repair. But that isn't normal inside a blood vessel. Instead, what if we deliver a biological polymer that binds right to where that damage is and looks like the native inside of the blood vessel — will that then make the cells respond like it's healthy and facilitate healing of the blood vessel? We've done some clinical trials in Australia and New Zealand on that, and it looks really good. There's a company pushing that forward to see if we can bring it into use.
Vascular is definitely my favorite area, but we've worked a lot in the cartilage and osteoarthritis space as well as wound healing for burns and diabetes.
"The perspective of my lab is that if we change the environment in which the cell lives, then the cell will adapt to that environment and change its function. Rather than acting directly on the cell, we act on the cell environment."
You’ve been involved in several startups and have something like 30 patents in the U.S. Why is that kind of innovation and startup activity crucial to what we do?
As biomedical engineers, we’re applied. We're trying to improve human health. I learned from my postdoc advisor that if you really want to improve human health, you have to patent new ideas, because companies won't develop something if they don't think they can make a profit. There are very few exceptions to that. So, if you really do want to improve human health from a therapeutic perspective, patenting is a critically important piece of what we do. And I learned very early on that if you are careful about it, you can patent and publish essentially at the same time, and we can fulfill our academic mission of furthering knowledge and sharing knowledge while also patenting.
Aside from your professional life, what should we know about you? What do you like to do when you’re not in the lab or teaching or running a department?
I do have a little bit of a work-life balance! That is really, really, really important. I do blend things in. I have sat on the side of soccer fields and put together entire tracks for conferences. So, I do balance. I'm sort of a health nut. I like to cycle and run and do yoga. I enjoy really good food, and I love to cook. And family and friends are important to me.
I'm really excited to be in Atlanta. I’ll be able to walk to Georgia Tech, and I can get to Piedmont Park pretty quickly to go running. And the Appalachian Trail is not so far away. I grew up on the other end of the Appalachian Trail, so I'm excited about that and to be able to get up into the mountains and hike. I've heard that Atlanta is really becoming a foodie place, and I have already experienced some great restaurants. And I’m excited just to be in a different culture.