Image of Rohit Bhargava in lab.

Illinois Innovators Podcast: Cancer and Engineering with Rohit Bhargava

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Urbana, Ill. In March 2005, Professor Rohit Bhargava was the first external hire to join the Department of Bioengineering as it launched. Now a Founder Professor in Engineering and an established researcher in chemical imaging and digital pathology techniques, he has led the Cancer Center at Illinois since it was formed in 2011.

The Cancer Center is an interdisciplinary group of more than 100 faculty members — biologists and technologists, behavioral scientists and computational scientists, chemists and engineers who uncover fundamental knowledge, develop new technologies, and relieve the burden of cancer. We discussed the center with Bhargava in November. The interview has been edited and condensed.


Q: Why did you and the team establish the Cancer Center?

As you know Illinois has provided the world with many innovations that determine how we live today in modern society. Many technologies can trace their basic roots back to the University of Illinois. Visible LED, web browser, MRI, many technologies.

When we got our Department of Bioengineering established here at the University of Illinois, we asked ‘How would we use bioengineering education to solve a particularly large problem in healthcare?’ And cancer is a central issue for many of us personally and professionally, and we thought ‘How can we bring engineering principles and that Illinois innovation spirit to try to address issues in cancer?’

So our Cancer Center is based on taking principles and approaches in engineering and combining that with principles in oncology to derive new kinds of technologies that can be used tomorrow.

Q: Illinois is great at cancer research. Has done cancer research for years. You personally, you and your colleagues. So what does a cancer center add to the party of the great research that’s already been going on for years?

[On the national scene,] there are 71 National Cancer Institute-designated cancer centers in the country — all doing exceptional work. They’re focused on problems that impact patient lives. Out of those there are seven basic cancer centers who are interested in understanding cancer from a biological point of view and a lot of things around developing new drugs.

But as we look at the national landscape, there isn’t a cancer center that is centered on technology. And that is a missed opportunity…If we only think of clinically driven problems, we’re missing some solutions.

We saw that gap with this Cancer Center. Our vision is to close that gap. The Cancer Center here on campus will allow the individual brilliance to be taken all the way to a translational product that might benefit patients.

CCIL office space

Image of Cancer Center at Illinois office space.

Q: How unusual is this approach that integrates technology and engineering approaches?

A focus on the fundamental engineering needed to drive cancer research forward is not a traditional way in which the cancer community across the nation has thought about addressing cancer. And fair enough. Real scientific investigations into cancer are only about a century old as a large community. The first need was to understand, obviously, the immediate thing in front of us. What kind of cancer? How does it behave? So the first few decades of modern cancer research were more focused on discovery, understanding, cataloging, and describing how cancer behaved.

As we transition many of the engineering disciplines away from their traditional applications, they — as they should  start addressing societal problems… This is the perfect time to think about cancer engineering.

Q: Let’s talk about some examples. What spaces are ready for that attitude?

The Cancer Center is focused on understanding, detecting, diagnosis, and treatments. We want to accelerate this by using engineering tools.

So think of imaging, for example. Imaging in detecting and diagnosing cancer is really an important tool, and we can greatly accelerate that by the expertise that we have on this campus in AI. We’re one of the leading places in computer science in the world. We can use that expertise to bear on cancer.

We’re also using our expertise in engineering in unusual ways. We have a fantastic materials science program here. And we’re working with materials scientists to develop laboratory models of tumors so that we can take a person’s cells, develop multiple copies of the tumors in the lab, using our expertise in materials science, and then test out drugs really quickly. This enables a very precise way to deliver treatment and, of course, discover new ways of treating cancer.

Q: The prospect of experimenting on an individual person’s cancer, not by giving them therapeutics and seeing if it works in their body, but testing outside of the body such that that individual is receiving the right, or at least the best, therapeutics from the start?

You’ve given a great summary of what it means from the patient’s side. So, if you’ll allow me, I’ll give a summary of what it means from the engineering side. These are the two sides of the coin.

On the engineering and technology side, we truly derive advantages when we scale up, right? When we do millions of things, we can do each one of those things at lower cost. Engineering is a very process-enabling activity that enables the same benefits to reach many, many people. Yet, it’s really possible to personalize those benefits. We not only have a music streaming service, but the music streaming service can personalize it to your song choices and perhaps use AI to discover your song preferences even you didn’t know you had.

How do we take the treatment modalities of determining how we treat people today and link that up with engineering tools and at the same time personalize it at the single-person level?

To us in engineering, this is really intuitive. In medicine, this is revolutionary. I think we need to find a way to make it practical for these two things, these two cultures, these two philosophies to combine, and, as you just pointed out, that will lead to enormous benefits for the patient.

Q: That’s amazing. I am often pleasantly surprised by my Spotify-generated radio station, and the prospect of that being applied to my illness just blows my mind.

That’s precisely where Grainger Engineering comes in. If you look at Spotify and its recommendations, let’s say — just as a disclaimer, I have no commercial association with Spotify — but if we take Spotify as an example, when it makes a song choice for you that you don’t like, you can say ‘Move on to the next song.’ We cannot afford that in cancer care, of course. This is where the really hard engineering comes in. The difference between being 99 percent accurate and being 99.999 percent accurate is really all about engineering. How do you take the rigorous training, the hands-on experiences of students here at Illinois and their first-hand experiences of making things work? That’s the spirit we need to bring to engineering and cancer.

Q: Let’s use that to turn the corner into the Cancer Center’s interest in education. They run a pretty wide gamut of ages?

Yeah, we have a full pipeline in the Cancer Center from high school programs all the way to faculty development programs and even later stages of people’s careers. The whole idea is to expose people to cancer research as a topic, particularly with an engineering bent, which is in the early stages of education from high school on to undergraduate and so on. At the undergraduate level, we seek to motivate them to pursue careers in this direction. At the graduate level, of course, we train them to pursue careers in this direction. And, at the faculty level, we challenge them to think of broader ideas and newer vistas once their careers start developing along.

I want to focus our attention on one program that we’re really proud of. We’re now in our eighth year of this program. It’s called Cancer Scholars at the undergraduate level…We started Cancer Scholars in the first semester of their college careers to inform a group of students about cancer research, and, from the second semester onwards, get them engaged in the research lab, actually applying what they learn in the classroom back into the research world. And then every year we have a set of a couple of extra courses for them. We help them get into summer research internships at clinical centers and maybe other experiences with the capstone project at the end of the four years also focused on a cancer-related topic.

Now, we’re trying to scale this up. We started with 12 students, then 18, now 24, and we’re starting to expand this out. But it’s really the innovative culture that we have in Grainger Engineering, supported by the Academy for Excellence in Engineering Education, that allows us to do these things. The way Cancer Scholars started was with a small grant from our college that allows innovations in education to be applied, evaluated. And if they work, then we continue them on.

Rohit Bhargava with students

Image of Rohit Bhargava with students.

Q: That grew out of Bioengineering, but it’s not just Bioengineering students who are part of those Cancer Scholar cohorts that you described?

We expanded the availability of Cancer Scholars to other departments in Engineering. And now we’re going to expand it out to other departments across campus. It is still firmly anchored in the Bioengineering Department, and we’re really thankful for their support and their teaching faculty who also work with us on this program.

Q: You mentioned starting to think about the program eight or 10 years ago. That predates the Carle Illinois College of Medicine, but it also tracks with the Carle Illinois College of Medicine. So talk a little about that relationship and how those two subsets of this organization help one another out.

I would take this story back even five years before that, Bill, to when the Department of Bioengineering was formally established in late 2004. In 2010, we proposed and started working on the Cancer Center, which was really a research-focused compliment to the educational opportunities we had enabled in Bioengineering. It’s this relationship between research and education that goes back and forth that really makes us stronger.

So Bioengineering was an engineering-focused, engineering-infused attempt to work in the health space. And then the Cancer Center is a research-focused, focal attempt in the cancer space. In 2015 or so, when we started putting up the college of medicine, that was a medically driven, problem-driven side to take advantage of both the Department of Bioengineering and efforts like the Cancer Center’s research.

It’s this combination of engineering and education. The movement started on our campus with Bioengineering in education and research advances in specific fields really gave us the confidence to really bring it all together, the engineering and the biomedical research into the Carle Illinois College of Medicine. So the folks who graduate from here will be technology-savvy, problem-ready to apply those principles to research and education.

This wonderful dance of Bioengineering, research-focused institutes like the Cancer Center, and the college of medicine is highly synergistic, providing a wonderful menu of opportunities for all our faculty and students here.

Q: That took us to the beginning. Now let’s project into the future. In five, 10, or as far out as you’re willing to speculate, what does success look like and where do you want to end up?

I want to share one recent example that is a really fantastic illustration. We have a colleague on campus, Dave Shapiro. Dave is a biologist who has been engaged in fundamental discovery, particularly related to estrogen receptors and breast cancer. A few years ago, Dave thought of a really innovative concept. In cancer care and breast cancer, we’ve always looked at the estrogen receptor and tried to block its activity. Now the estrogen receptor is also present in normal cells. So when you block its activity, of course, you’re starving the cancer cells, keeping them from getting cancer-driving signals. But you’re also affecting the normal cells.

Dave thought in a very different way. He thought, ‘could I take the estrogen receptor and excite it, diminishing it, to excite a process that makes the cancer cell run out of steam?’ When it gets excited, it promotes the unfolded protein response, eventually causing the cancer cells to die and normal cells to not be affected.

Our researchers took that basic discovery and put in high-throughput chemical synthesis, high-throughput testing of chemistries, evaluation and model systems — all the way to a viable anti-cancer compound, using a team approach in the cancer center here. That compound was picked up by Bayer, who are going to invest more than $350 million to turn it into a drug that hopefully will be available soon.

These are the kinds of stories we want to create, both on the technology side for detection and diagnosis, as well as the therapeutic side.