Excitement building: RWJUH, med school combine for Center for Innovation that’s growing, inspiring

Leaders of Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital‘s and Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School‘s new Center for Innovation say they’re moving at a rapid pace.

The numbers speak for themselves.

When the two local medicine titans brought the research center to life in September, they announced their team was starting out by advancing two clinical trials. A few months later, the team has at least a dozen clinical trials underway and about 30 innovation-sponsored research projects it can claim credit for, too.

Partho Sengupta.

“There’s so much innovation and discovery going on here,” said Dr. Partho Sengupta, a professor and a chief of cardiology departments across the two organizations who oversees the initiative.

The Center for Innovation sits on the main campus of the hospital in New Brunswick. Sengupta described it as a multidisciplinary environment where physicians, engineers and researchers collaborate. Those professionals — from practicing clinicians to those in private industry and academia — work together on developments that are hoped to yield medical breakthroughs in preventative care and health outcomes.

Much of that work involves digital imaging technologies, many of which fall into Sengupta’s cardiology wheelhouse. One example is an artificial intelligence solution that augments the ability of cardiologists to swiftly extract information from electrocardiograms.

There are also some emerging wearable technologies being tested in the center, such as one from health startup MindMics. Its earbud products detect subtle fluctuations in signals coming from the vascular system to trace and record blood pressure changes.

In another exciting project at the center, which is supported by the National Science Foundation and other entities, researchers are making breakthroughs with portable ultrasounds that can discover abnormalities in heart function.

Sengupta is not one to brag, he said. But he said it’s hard not to when there’s so many potentially transformative technologies being developed in one place.

Sengupta indicated that, with the ballooning interest the center has received, it will at some point have to become increasingly selective with what clinical trials it takes on.

“Right now, there’s a lot of momentum and interest in many different areas,” he said.

The center’s leaders have worked to overcome some initial skepticism to get community cardiologists involved in the research work, to ensure that they directly benefit from the innovations being produced there.

Along the way, Sengupta believes those partnering in the center’s research could benefit in another sense. …

Simply put, they’re enjoying themselves.

In a time when burnout in the health care industry is at a high, according to various surveys of the toll taken on physicians and others in the field during the pandemic, finding enjoyment in exciting innovations has its perks.

That’s true for those in the practice of medicine as well as the patients they treat.

“So, it’s not just about technology for us; it’s about a transformation of culture,” Sengupta said. “We want to create a new generation of health leaders for the future … and bring the spirit of inquiry back to the bedside for every patient we serve. Because the joy of discovery is really what should drive medicine.”

Still thriving, striving

Nearly a year after the sale of once New Jersey Institute of Technology-associated cell and gene therapy company BioCentriq, one of the company’s leaders said its ability to move innovative and novel therapies to clinical trials has only been accelerated.

The still New Jersey-based BioCentriq, which was launched about three years ago by NJIT’s New Jersey Innovation Institute, was acquired last year by South Korean company GC Corp.

“They’re a large company that’s very successful in both traditional pharmaceuticals and cell therapies,” said Alex Klarer, BioCentriq’s vice president of business strategy and innovation. “They saw what we were doing when we were a part of NJII and wanted to augment us with their business. So, we’re a subsidiary of them that operates independently, but we want to work with them to help scale what BioCentriq is doing as an innovator in production translation and delivery for cell therapy products.”

BioCentriq is a contract development and manufacturing company, or CDMO, that works with companies in the cell and gene therapy field that are attempting to graduate from therapeutic and medical research into human trials.

“(This GC Corp. sale) has reinforced that work we were doing,” Klarer said. “They’ve been a great partner. It’s good to have a partner that is promoting us as a business and believes in what we’re building toward.”

Looking forward, BioCentriq’s team expects to benefit from the latest explosion of technology that focuses on predictive understanding of how cells operate.

Klarer said BioCentriq doesn’t adopt the latest tools just for the sake of it. It’s interested only when those tools help it get closer to its goal: Advancing cell and gene therapies with revolutionary potential for how diseases can be treated without significant upheaval to a person’s life.

“What these products can do is replace 5 to 10 years of treatment with a month of treatment,” Klarer said. “That’s the real benefit we’re seeing: giving people their life back, beyond just keeping them alive.”