A Conversation with John Langell, M.D., Ph.D., M.P.H.
Executive Director, Center for Medical Innovation, University of Utah
By Kimball Thomson
JOHN LANGELL, M.D., PH.D., M.P.H., executive director of the University Center from Utah’s new Center for Medical Innovation (CMI)
In July 2012 Vivian Lee, the University of Utah’s SVP for health sciences, tapped the multifaceted John Langell, an innovative chief surgeon and professor in the dispersed fields of surgery, management and bioengineering with Stanford and NASA bona fides to lead the University’s newly created Center for Medical Innovation. The Center was created to help guide and inspire medical entrepreneurs within and outside the University. Recently BioUtah took advantage of the opportunity to engage Dr. Langell in a conversation about the mission and life science focus of the Center from medical devices to therapeutic video games.
BioUtah: What are some of the chief areas of focus for your teams at the University of Utah’s Center for Medical Innovation now?
John Langell: Right now we’re very much engaged in some of our greatest core competencies: imaging interface, digital medical therapeutics, medical applications and device development, and nanotechnology. Those are really the biggest things coming out of our programs right now.
BioUtah: Can we drill down on some of the exciting things happening within these areas of expertise?
Langell: First, nanotechnology fabrication is taking off.
Second, the Scientific Computing & Imaging Institute (SCI) continues to do world-class things with the software and imaging interface.
Third, there is strong expertise here in device development and FDA regulatory processes. We get tapped a lot for this. For example, the Korean Government asked us to put together an executive course to teach executives how to negotiate FDA processes.
On the digital interface side, we’re developing the production of video games that are used for medical therapeutics. Some of them have been shown to be more efficacious than medicine! And they don’t have the regulatory difficulties that many drugs do because they’re not tested.
We are currently the number one game development university program in the country. We’ve developed a partnership with the University Medical Center so we can actually completely produce the games, take them to the various treatment centers and test them to show medical efficacy. Then they can be launched out into industry and into the patient care system. That has become a big strategic focus for us.
BioUtah: What are some of the more compelling medical video games?
Langell: One game, funded by the Department of Defense, is a game called Snowland that uses 3-D virtual reality glasses. Patients use it three times a day. They took soldiers with severe chronic pain syndrome from improvised explosive devices that were missing limbs or burns. They typically have huge narcotic requirements. They ran a controlled test on the efficacy of controlling chronic pain relief and found that the game was more efficacious than the narcotics were.
There are also games being developed that study the brain, looking at physiologic imaging of brain activity during passive and active interaction, and developing regimens that motivate and incent users to modify their behavior in efficacious ways. Others create an appealing virtual three-dimensional video game world that again incents injured patients to engage in activities that optimize positive outcomes undefined by empowering users to choose their own virtual environments and reward them for engaging in positive activities, such as walking uphill to strengthen their legs.
A student developed a game that teaches autistic children how to make positive daily decisions by incentivizing them with fun and enjoyment. Another encourages young diabetes patients by linking their gaming performance by giving their video game characters super powers for healthy blood sugar levels, weakness for high blood sugar.
I think digital therapeutics have great potential because we are poised to be able to do that well. It is a brand-new field and the FDA is trying to figure out how to regulate it right now. It requires programmers who know how to make really quality outstanding games and University Utah’s number one in the country. Their games come out as high-quality finished products. It is an area worthy of investment, from the universities, the state, donors and institutional investors.
The possibilities for driving positive outcomes are virtually limitless through this medical gaming approach.
BioUtah: Can you discuss the remaining potential for the Utah Population Database? Is Utah losing an advantage there?
Langell: The population database is a unique database, and right now it is something that can be leveraged. The downside is that its caretakers have been so slow to move forward that we are starting to lose the advantage. There are now places in Europe that have as many entries as we do, or more. I think that politics associated with that database have been inhibitory. And because of that I’m not sure that we’re going to be able to overcome it. Unless somebody moves fast were going to lose our advantage very, very quickly.
BioUtah: What do you see as the University system’s role in helping make Utah a world-class destination for entrepreneurs and for life science executives?
Langell: We provide resources and sometimes capital so they can train their workers for the skills and skillsets that they really need to succeed in the marketplace. We can educate and train the current staff and executives in areas that they don’t have skills right now, but will be beneficial to their organization going forward. We can also do sponsored research that they may lack the resources or bandwidth to do in-house. There are many ways to fund this. They can supply the fees necessary to cover graduate student stipends and pay for the work of professors for the development, and the company gets first rights for intellectual property.
Looking at the big picture, it is really our goal to serve as a partner, as a central node in partnership with BioUtah and the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED) to support our life science industries. Our primary focus is education. We have exceptional faculty and student resource experts in the sciences, and we are thrilled to work with companies in ways that are beneficial for all involved, in developing regional economic development and job creation. An aligned strategy is crucial here between industry, government and the universities. Government has to decide where it wants the state as a whole to focus and be willing to put in the resources, industry has to be aligned with the same strategy and all this has to fit with what the University’s strategy is in executing its mission.
We are not here primarily as a conduit to get companies’ products into the market through purchase by our hospital. But we are here to help, and have them help us in a collegial and collaborative relationship.
BioUtah: Are you seeing encouraging signs of industry involvement at the University now?
Langell: Yes, in many areas. For instance, one of the things we are working on right is finding life science industry leaders to step forward as mentors and sponsors for the Bench to Bedside entrepreneurial development program. Levoy Haight of Summit Medical has agreed to donate funds to a scholarship fund. We’d love to have many other life science leaders get involved investing time and resources to help develop our students as business leaders who can translate research into market value.