Oak Ridge National Laboratory

 

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ORNL researchers part of team to improve national health care

OAK RIDGE, Tenn., May 19, 1995 — Scientists intent on improving national health care and lowering its costs gathered in Atlanta recently to discuss such topics as new methods for early diagnosis of disease, development of materials to repair or replace damaged bones, and research that may lead to cures for an array of hereditary diseases.

Several of the scientists at the meeting, "Biomedical Technologies Opportunities: A Workshop," were from the Department of Energy's (DOE) Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), one of the event's hosts. Other researchers represented universities, other national laboratories and the private sector. One of the goals of the workshop was to encourage collaboration of scientists on biomedical projects, such as those designed to tell us more about the human genome and better, less expensive biomedical technology.

"Biomedical research and technology is a primary focus area for DOE and its national laboratories," said Carl Gehrs, director of the Center for Biotechnology at ORNL. "In keeping with this focus, a primary strategic goal of DOE is to find ways that its national laboratories can interact with American industry to improve the delivery of health care."

Industry representatives at the workshop had a chance to learn how they can benefit from biomedical technology within ORNL and other national labs. They also had a chance to suggest areas for new or additional research.

One area of research involves development of biomedical materials such as new metal alloys and ceramic composites that can be used to repair or replace bones. These materials can help a patient regain mobility and retain normal appearance. Work in this area was presented by ORNL Metals and Ceramics Division researcher April McMillan, who noted the vital role national labs are playing in improving people's lives.

"The national laboratories can be a tremendous resource for the development of improved biomaterials," McMillan said. "They are repositories of remarkable information, technology, materials and equipment capabilities, and a pool of creative talent."

Lisa Stubbs, a researcher in ORNL's Biology Division, served as chairwoman for a session involving the Human Genome Project, an international, multidisciplinary effort to study the structure and function of human chromosomes. Because of the similarities now known to exist between mouse and human genes and chromosomes, mutant mice such as those at ORNL with health disorders ranging from diabetes to complex neurological disorders may help us to identify important health-related genes that are difficult to trace in humans.

"This work has already produced a number of important discoveries that will lead to a better understanding of the critical factors contributing to human health," Stubbs said. Included in the discoveries is the isolation of genes responsible for cystic fibrosis and Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Genetic factors that dictate hereditary susceptibilities to diseases such as cancer, diabetes, obesity, heart disease and arthritis are also being mapped and discovered.

"Once such genes are isolated, a great deal can be learned about the specific problems causing the disease," Stubbs said. "This new knowledge can be used to design specialized treatments and, for example, specific drugs that target the real cause and not just the symptoms of a disease."

Tuan Vo-Dinh, a researcher in ORNL's Health Sciences Research Division, was a presenter and also chairman of a session on "Biomedical Sensors and Instrumentation." He discussed recent technologies developed at various national laboratories for early disease diagnosis and non-invasive therapy. Many of the breakthroughs, he said, "contribute greatly in bringing down medical costs and improving the quality of health care." Vo-Dinh also noted that many technologies developed initially for non-medical applications are being adapted for use in biomedical research and clinical procedures.

ORNL's Lillian Clinard and Sherri Matis served as chairwomen of a session titled "Bioinformatics and Telemedicine," which involves using computer-based intelligent systems to more accurately diagnose medical conditions and to predict the effectiveness of an array of treatments. Physicians can use this technology to prescribe the most effective drug in a given situation, or more accurately diagnose the presence of tumors seen with computer-assisted tomography and magnetic resonance imaging.

Matis emphasizes that computer-based intelligent systems are not intended to replace a physician's judgment, but to give the physician another tool to use in diagnosis and treatment. She also talked about the program's success with transplant patients in Pennsylvania.

"In conjunction with surgeons at the University of Pittsburgh Transplantation Institute, we have created a computer-based intelligent system that predicts liver failure in patients who have undergone liver transplantation," Matis said. Using the computer-based intelligent systems, physicians can accurately predict 96 percent of liver failures and successes.

G. Wayne Morrison of the Oak Ridge Centers for Manufacturing Technology was chairman of a session titled "Biomedical Manufacturing Systems." Representatives from industry, the military, and DOE labs joined physicians in discussing medical instruments, technology and efforts to improve care of traumatized patients on the battlefield. Morrison's group is researching ways to improve emergency health care and detecting and treating heart disease.

Some of the others representing ORNL at the workshop, which attracted dozens of scientists, were K. Bruce Jacobson, organizer of the workshop; Stephen Kennel of the Center for Biotechnology; William Martin, vice president of Technology Transfer for Martin Marietta Energy Systems; Barry Berven, director of Health Sciences Research Division; and Associate Laboratory Director David Reichle.

Other workshop hosts were: ORNL Center for Biotechnology, Oak Ridge Centers for Manufacturing Technology, ORNL Office of Science and Technology Partnerships and Oak Ridge Center for Healthcare Industry Development. Co-hosts were Brookhaven National Laboratory, Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories.

ORNL, one of DOE's multiprogram national research and development facilities, is managed by Lockheed Martin Energy Systems, which also manages the Oak Ridge K-25 Site and the Oak Ridge Y-12 Plant.