Engineers and Neuroscientists Partner to Make Breakthrough Discoveries

Professor Scott Acton

It’s a Match

When UVA Electrical Engineer Scott Acton crossed paths with UVA neuroscientist Jonathan Kipnis at a medical research retreat, collaborative sparks flew. It took them less than an hour to outline several exciting projects that could apply Professor Acton’s biomedical imaging analysis techniques to Dr. Kipnis’ groundbreaking work on the newly discovered lymphatic system in the brain.

The identification of the brain’s lymphatic system—which was once unknown—is one of the largest and surprising discoveries in modern medicine. And although Kipnis’ discovery is exciting enough, it’s just the beginning. Research into this newfound area promises to help solve the mysteries of devastating neuro-immune disorders like Alzheimer’s and autism that are still incurable.

One of the main components in researching brain immune disorders is getting quantifiable data that answers basic but essential questions about what causes change in the brain. Such changes may be due to a drug, an environment, or a gene. That’s where biomedical image analysis becomes crucial, because it can measure minute changes in the brain’s complex components, such as neurons, parts of neurons, and connective tissue, and start to get answers.

Ultimately, through a bold venture known as embedding, Acton joined Kipnis’ team to begin the journey of charting nothing less than a new frontier of the human brain.

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“I’m actually very optimistic that one day we could live to a very, very, very old age and not develop Alzheimer’s.”  
- Jonathan Kipnis, UVA Neuroscientist 

Go BIG or Go Home

After the fact, it’s clear the match was a success. A testament to their research accomplishments includes articles published in prestigious journals such as Nature. But Acton didn’t know that at the outset. And there were other successes beyond the research.

During their initial talks, Acton and Kipnis realized that the projects they were developing were intricate and innovative enough that they would require consistent, sustained involvement with one another. They knew they were talking about embedding.

A level up from plain old collaborating and happenstance meetings, “embedding” is a key part of the strategy UVA’s Center for Engineering in Medicine (EIM) is employing in their $10M effort to promote innovation and exchange of ideas at the engineering-medicine interface. Embedding relies on research showing that innovation arises when people with very different ideas and expertise work in close proximity. To achieve that proximity, EIM-funded projects routinely include exchange of students and other research personnel among collaborating labs and clinical units, as well as training to help the students make the most of their embedding experience.

As a full-time professor, Acton knew it would be hard to find dedicated time in order to embed himself in Kipnis’ lab. The best solution, with support from then-chair of the Electrical and Computer Engineering department, John Lach, was to apply for grant funding to support this unique research proposition. Their proposal was funded by the School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) as part of their commitment to the EIM Strategic Investment Fund award, and allowed Acton to join Kipnis’ lab at the Center for Brain Immunology and Glia, BIG, at the School of Medicine (SOM).

Scott Acton Embedding in SOM

When in Rome

When Acton arrived at BIG in the fall of 2018, he jumped in with both feet. As the director of BIG, Kipnis knew that Acton would need to come up to speed with the team’s projects. Kipnis fixed this in short order by asking his postdoctoral fellows and research scientists to prepare slide presentations that explained their projects for Acton. As Acton described the download of information, “It was a little overwhelming and a bit of a culture shock. They presented enough work for a whole career in just two hours.”

To further assimilate into his new environment and understand the neuroscientists’ needs more fully, Acton did his part by auditing the class, “Introduction to Neuroscience.” It’s safe to say that he was the only full professor taking the class and possibly the only engineer.

In parallel, Acton began working on each of the BIG projects one by one and translating measuring requirements into imaging projects. Between his research and auditing the neuroscience class, Acton was working full time on research, in sharp contrast to the limited time for research available in his normal teaching-research-service life. During his embedding experience Acton was able to conduct research with a depth and breadth not available to him during his academic routine.

“Embedding took me from an education-focused routine to a pure research mission. The urgency of the laboratory life and the fear of ‘being scooped’ were a shot of pure adrenaline,” says Acton.

However, Acton soon realized that there were more projects available than he would be able to handle in the single semester he planned to be at SOM. He quickly recruited students from his lab at the electrical and computing engineering department, the Virginia Image and Video Analysis Lab, or VIVA. Acton continued to support BIG in dual roles, one as a lab mate and one as a professor overseeing student research. In this way, what started as an embedding relationship quickly expanded into a two-way pipeline with engineers and neuroscientists. Eventually an entire BIG-VIVA community evolved that still exists today.

Although Acton and the lab teams were making great strides in research, student education, and community building, the embedding experience also had a lighter side. Acton came to work in jeans, grew out his beard (much to his wife’s chagrin) and was “bossed around just like the other lab members,” he said. He was invited into the social life of the team as well. He joined them at their journal club, happy hour, and a hike in the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains. Acton’s involvement in every aspect of the team created a cohesiveness and camaraderie that helped to catalyze novel ideas and solutions.

Acton remarked, “It was a semester of learning and feeling lost and trying to keep up with scientists in BIG. Even on the annual BIG hike, I was the last one up the mountain!”

 

Building the New Net

The pairing of BIG-VIVA labs produced advancements in neuroscience immunology and biomedical image analysis, which include the morphological classification of neurons, developing algorithms for studying microglia (immune cells of the central nervous system), building a more reliable cell counting and segmentation technique, and the ability to differentiate types of neurons within a mass of millions.

These types of outcomes are precisely the measurement tools needed to research and cure neuro-immune disorders and eventually improve the lives of countless patients and their families.

Another outcome of this endeavor is not as evident but is just as potent. A new network has been established that has proven to solve complex medical problems, problems that can only be solved via the engineering and medicine fusion. The BIG-VIVA Net is now a permanent structure at UVA and full of connectivity, creativity, and interchange. It’s not a stretch to say there’s an information superhighway cross-linking the brightest minds in their fields who are embedding, collaborating, and brainstorming in order to conceive of the next solution, the next breakthrough.  

In this digital age it’s ironic that the “new net” is comprised of people.

Even more, other ‘nets are burgeoning around UVA grounds through EIM seed grants, including the linkup between cancer and mobile health, between big data and predictive medicine, between cardiovascular medicine and computational engineering, and between wireless, wearable or implantable sensors and patient monitoring—with more to come.

With these powerful networks in place, what will follow is the transformation of science and public health.