Public Release: 

UC Davis biomedical engineering department awarded $12 million by Whitaker Foundation

University of California - Davis

The Whitaker Foundation announced today that it has awarded a grant of $12 million to the new Department of Biomedical Engineering at the University of California, Davis. The grant will help expand the department and enhance campus research in genomics, medical imaging and other fields. It will trigger approximately $35 million in matching funds from the state government and university sources.

"We're very excited and happy," said department chair Katherine Ferrara. The money will be used to attract new faculty, support graduate students, and purchase equipment, said Ferrara. It will also help fund the new Genome and Biomedical Sciences building, to be completed in 2004, which will house the department as well as the campus genomics initiative and other programs.

"Biomedical engineering is a tremendously exciting area of research with positive outcomes for human health," said UC Davis Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Virginia Hinshaw. "Thanks to the vision and hard work of Dr. Ferrara and her colleagues, the Whitaker grant will provide a significant and timely boost for biomedical engineering here at UC Davis. All of us are delighted with their success in competing for this grant and we anticipate many advances in human health emerging from this program."

The Department of Biomedical Engineering at UC Davis was established within the College of Engineering in February this year. As of July 1, the department had six faculty, with another 10 to be recruited in the next five years.

"We are extremely pleased with this very important development for the college. With the help of this award, our new Department of Biomedical Engineering will be able to play a major role in developing interdisciplinary teaching and research programs with considerable impact on the college and the campus," said Zuhair Munir, interim dean of engineering at UC Davis.

"The Whitaker Foundation grant will allow the college to pursue this new direction with vigor, and to set up a strong program that can be ranked among the best in the nation," Munir said.

At the convergence of biology, medicine and technology, biomedical engineering is a fast-moving field that is attracting the "best of the best" students. As many as 20 percent of incoming engineering students would choose a specialization in biomedical engineering, estimated Ferrara.

Initially, the department will have a strong focus on genomics. Scientists need to develop new techniques to analyze the very large amounts of data created by the Human Genome Project and other gene-sequencing efforts. They will develop mathematical tools and computer programs to wade through the data and work out how a DNA sequence becomes a living being.

A major factor in awarding the grant was UC Davis' clear plan to bring together genomics and studies of whole organs, according to foundation spokesman Frank Blanchard. Craig Benham, recently appointed as associate director and current interim director of the UC Davis Genome Center, will have a faculty position in the department.

"The department has a very well developed plan led by a clear vision for the future," said Blanchard.

The department also has a strong focus on imaging technology, especially ultrasound and positron emission tomography (PET). The laboratories of Ferrara and Michael Insana are studying ultrasound imaging. For example, they are looking at ways to make ultrasound more powerful and precise for earlier diagnosis of diseases such as breast cancer.

PET is a sophisticated imaging technique that can be used to measure chemical reactions within the body. For example, it can be used to display images of the brain, and show what areas are active during particular tasks. New faculty member Simon Cherry, who joined the department July 1, is an expert on PET who will expand existing research in the area.

Other areas of research in the fledgling department include development of microinstruments for medical use, studies of fluid dynamics in blood, and how white blood cells stick to other cells.

As it grows the department will interact with faculty from across the campus, including the schools of medicine and veterinary medicine as well as engineering, biology and agricultural science departments.

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The mission of the Whitaker Foundation is to promote human health through advances in medicine and rehabilitation. The foundation has established competitive grant programs that support research and education in biomedical engineering in the United States and Canada.

More information: -- http://www.whitaker.org
-- http://www.bmenet.org
-- http://www.bme.ucdavis.edu

Media contacts:
-- Katherine Ferrara, Biomedical Engineering, 530-754-9436, kwferrara@ucdavis.edu
-- Frank Blanchard, Whitaker Foundation, 703-528-2430, fb@whitaker.org
-- Andy Fell, News Service, 530-752-4533, ahfell@ucdavis.edu

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