The Mayo Clinic mission is to inspire hope and contribute to health and well-being by providing the best care to every patient through integrated clinical practice, education, and research, evidenced through their top-ranking hospitals, innovative colleges, and breakthrough research programs. The mission of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is to enhance the lives of citizens in Illinois, across the nation, and around the world through leadership in learning, discovery, engagement, and economic development.
Since 2011, these two institutions have come together through the Mayo Clinic and University of Illinois Alliance for Technology-Based Healthcare, with the goal of transforming healthcare through innovative research activities and education programs.
Recently, two Illinois students were selected to advance their education and careers at Mayo Clinic. Taylor Crooks, a molecular and cellular biology undergraduate student at Illinois, trained at Mayo Clinic as part of the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program. He will be continuing his work as a doctoral student in the Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Biomedical Science. Arjun Athreya, a doctoral student in electrical and computer engineering, participated in the Technology-Based Healthcare Fellowship at Mayo Clinic. He will be taking a faculty position at Mayo Clinic in the Department of Molecular Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics.
During his summer with the SURF program, Crooks studied a potential microbial cause to endometrial cancer, and the potential use of a secondary bile acid isomer for chemotherapeutic treatment of ovarian cancer. “In my time with Mayo Clinic, I learned a variety of in-lab techniques needed to advance cutting-edge research and improve healthcare for everyone,” said Crooks. “I was given the opportunity to work firsthand with brilliant minds at Mayo Clinic, in addition to learning and becoming one with the ‘Mayo culture’ that I have become so fond of.”
“Taylor has contributed tremendously from day one. I think the best description for him is that he has a ‘green thumb’ for culturing what can be (for others) difficult-to-grow microbes in the lab,” said Nicholas Chia, Ph.D., co-director of the Microbiome Program within the Center for Individualized Medicine at Mayo Clinic and Crooks’ fellowship mentor. “The most impressive thing about Illinois students has been their ability to contribute to the thought that goes beyond the experiments, really asking questions and understanding the point of the work.”
For Athreya, Mayo Clinic offers the opportunity to take his background in electrical and computer engineering to advance technology used in individualizing treatment management of patients with major depressive disorder. The work of the team he served on has been encapsulated in a clinician-friendly web interface they hope will be made available to all primary care centers and hospitals that are willing to follow assessments recommended by measurement-based psychiatry.
“What I learned is that modern health science—and even beyond healthcare—is now ‘team science,’ a phrase I borrow from my mentor Dr. Richard Weinshilboum,” said Athreya. “It means multiple disciplines and thinking philosophies are needed to address a complex problem, and by working together as a team, we are bound to achieve what we could not have done individually.”
Using team science to advance and transform healthcare is what the Mayo Clinic and Illinois Alliance is all about. Richard Weinshilboum, M.D., professor of pharmacology and medicine and Dasburg Professor of Cancer Genomics Research at Mayo Clinic, said, “I’ve been at Mayo Clinic for a long time, and this alliance—institution to institution—has been the most positive and most productive I’ve seen.” With the explosion of big data in medicine—from data-loaded electronic health records, to digital imaging data, to the genomic revolution—Dr. Weinshilboum believes the alliance responds to the need to combine medical and computational expertise. It allows burgeoning leaders from both Illinois and Mayo Clinic to physically interact and learn from each other.
That mutual learning has translated to real results for Arthreya and his team. While there are effective medications for treating depression, matching the right patients with the right drugs has been a clinical challenge. Patients may go through several trials of treatment, over the course of several months, before they see remission from depressive symptoms. By applying computation techniques to the large Mayo Clinic patient datasets, the team has seen large improvements in drug response prediction rates. Especially for suicidal patients, this can mean the difference between life and death.
“Not often do we engineers get an opportunity to be so close to the point of impact our technology has as when a clinician uses our technology to tailor diagnoses/treatment for a patient,” said Athreya.
William V. Bobo, M.D., professor and chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Psychology at the Mayo Clinic campus in Florida, agreed that Athreya, and other fellows, make a significant impact by providing and sometimes even developing novel analytic tools. This is important, he explained, because new insights and approaches are needed to advance the field and improve the way patients are evaluated. During his career at Mayo Clinic, Athreya will likely find more intersecting opportunities in biomedical and computational sciences to improve treatment of epilepsy, heart disease, and more.
As an undergraduate student, Crooks explained that his experience at Mayo Clinic changed the way that he—and potentially other engineers and scientists—see possibilities in healthcare. “After working at Mayo Clinic, I gained a greater understanding of how deeply intertwined these two fields truly are,” said Crooks. “Both depend upon each other…to better understand the diseases they are combating including, but not limited to cancer, infectious diseases, and auto-immune diseases. By working with clinicians first-hand, we can take on these challenges with greater strength.”
The Mayo Clinic and Illinois Alliance continues to offer educational opportunities each year for interested Illinois undergraduate and graduate students. “Mayo Clinic has one characteristic that I have yet to find in greater abundance anywhere else—the genuine desire to help others and help shape the world for the better,” said Crooks. “My greatest impression of what helped to drive individuals to succeed there was their genuine interest in helping others.”
Athreya acknowledges the important qualities needed for working in a collaborative environment. “Like all graduate work, plenty of motivation, patience, and appetite for knowledge is needed,” said Athreya. “Specifically, the most important quality of an engineering student in making this team science work, is in their ability to learn, hear, and assimilate the unmet needs in the clinic. They need to understand how it is affecting patients so as to feel connected to the relevance of the study—and then develop technology that begins to feed back into the clinic.”
“At Mayo Clinic, our core value is that the needs of the patient come first,” said Dr. Bobo. “This is the perspective that we hope to instill in the Illinois fellows who work with us.”
For more information on the Mayo Clinic and Illinois Alliance, and its educational opportunities, visit mayoillinois.org.