UTA Magazine
The doctor is always in
Virtual research park eventually will allow patient - physician consultations via computer

Virtual surgery

Electrical engineering Professor Venkat Devarajan performs virtual surgery using tactile response devices from a Nedderman Hall office.

Just for today you are a medical doctor. A dermatologist, let’s say. This morning a patient comes in with an unusual skin lesion, and you would very much like to compare images of it with others of similar size and shape.

Simply log in to UTA’s BioGrid Texas Virtual Research Park, and within seconds you’re at the database where you can upload images of this lesion and search for similar ones based on attributes and diagnoses. You can also perform segmentation and shape analyses to assess potential malignancy and response to treatment.

The entire process takes little time and is smoothly accomplished from your office. Before you perform any type of invasive procedure, you have reliable information regarding your patient’s likely diagnosis and a clear direction on what should happen next.

Science fiction? No, current reality.

Paul Medley, assistant dean in the UTA College of Science, and Alexander Zekulin, a senior solutions specialist for IBM, jointly created BioGrid Texas. Combining engineering and science expertise found at UTA and UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas with the technology of IBM’s virtual research park package, they established a means to solve large-scale, interdisciplinary problems.

“We’re bringing incredibly bright people together to do very complex things,” Dr. Medley said. “With BioGrid, we’re utilizing technology to bring medical care to people who would not normally have it. It’s an overarching collaborative environment that is customized for individual groups.”

In simple terms, individual users go through the turnstile at the virtual research park, and their ticket gets them on all the techno-rides.

In addition to the dermatology collaborative user group, other groups existing and emerging within BioGrid Texas include virtual rural medicine, designed to strengthen community hospitals and rural clinics; medical and biological text mining, which gathers text from databases and delivers specific information to users; and the UTA Smart Hospital and Health System, which will train nurses and physicians to manage large-scale medical emergencies and integrate all of the emergency care and exam simulators that occupy this 60-bed, virtual facility.

BioGrid Texas incorporates virtual surgery applications developed by the Virtual Environment Laboratory at UTA that utilize data generated from the National Library of Medicine’s Visible Human Project. In this environment, medical students and physicians log on, select the minimally invasive technique they wish to perform and practice endoscopic surgery from their home or office computer.

BioGrid Texas is also working with the pseudogene and retrogene research group; Project Connect, which plans to use BioGrid as the interface providing health and communication services to the disabled; and a psychology study planned to examine the interaction of the groups within BioGrid (kind of an in-house self-analysis).

Each group employs its own customized modules. The system itself is a functional shell, Medley said, but the nuts and bolts of what people use every day are defined by their own needs.

Eventually the system will offer everything required for a patient-doctor consultation and preliminary diagnosis. The physician and patient will use webcams and microphones to facilitate the process—though geographically they may be miles apart. 

 “The way we’re practicing medicine is the way we were practicing medicine a century ago, except that we don’t make house calls anymore,” Medley said. “Why go to the doctor’s office and sit for an hour to have a 5-minute appointment? This kind of inefficiency equates to higher costs, longer wait times, and frustrated physicians and patients, as well as complicated billing and legal procedures. Some physicians deal so much with administrative and legal issues that they have no time left to practice medicine.”

According to Drs. Medley and Zekulin, BioGrid Texas will increase efficiency, lower costs and improve medical care. Dr. Zekulin believes that the project will also allow Texas to blend its finest researchers into one user-friendly, highly effective virtual research park.

As with any system involving the intimacy of patient health, security is an important issue with BioGrid Texas. Zekulin said the infrastructure is carefully designed to protect all users, and it monitors who has access to which data so that BioGrid users experience a friendly, easily navigated system.

UTA computer science and engineering Professor Alp Aslandogan is collaborating with dermatologist Paul Bergstresser at UT Southwestern on research for BioGrid Texas. “BioGrid gives two important capabilities to researchers,” Dr. Aslandogan said. “It provides an environment for research, and it allows us to share resources. BioGrid helps with the effectiveness of the research process and improves how we do research.”

According to Medley, much of the technology featured in BioGrid Texas existed separately, but this new effort is the most comprehensive currently available specific to health care.

“We’ve created a virtual, collaborative, problem-solving environment to solve large-scale, interdisciplinary problems,” he said.

The potential uses of such a system? They’re virtually limitless.


— Sherry W. Neaves

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