This podcast was produced for the Lung Cancer Initiative at Johnson & Johnson by Scientific American Custom Media, a division separate from the magazine’s board of editors.
This interview with Hannah McEwen, PhD, the head of engineering sciences for the Lung Cancer Initiative at Johnson & Johnson, will discuss novel procedures that offer minimally invasive solutions to aid in the identification, diagnosis and treatment of early-stage lung lesions. These include robotic bronchoscopes that help oncologists diagnose difficult to reach lung nodules, and treatments that may one-day be used to deliver therapy directly to early-stage tumors.
Megan Hall: Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in the world. Why? Because it’s difficult to detect in its early stages and hard to treat once it’s discovered. The Lung Cancer Initiative at Johnson & Johnson is working to reverse that trend. And to do so, it needs not just doctors and researchers, but engineers. Hannah McEwen is the Head of Engineering Sciences for the group.
She recently sat down with Scientific American Custom Media to explain the role engineering can play in transforming lung cancer diagnosis and treatment.
Hall: When one hears about the field of engineering, it’s not always associated with medicine. When Hannah McEwen started her engineering career, she did so thinking about possibilities to apply the principles and problem-solving techniques of engineering to biology and medicine to ultimately improve healthcare.
Hannah McEwen: If I go back to my early days, even back at my university, in undergrad, I really began to fall in love with this idea that engineering can really be used to transform a patient’s health.
Hall: That love blossomed at her first internship, working on electronic devices to provide a sense of sound to people who are profoundly deaf or hard of hearing. She says these cochlear implants were a striking example of how engineering can improve the quality of life.
McEwen: We apply physics and mechanics and electrical engineering, and it can transform someone’s life, from one day being able to hear nothing to then being able to hear voices and people and sounds and, really having a transformational impact.
Hall: Hannah eventually joined Johnson and Johnson, where she spent more than a decade developing orthopedic implants designed to help people walk and move again. Over time, she started collaborating with colleagues across the company on new and aspirational projects.
McEwen: We don’t just think about waiting until someone has a disease and look at treating them then. But what can we do to intervene earlier in that disease progression?
Hall: Lung cancer is an ideal disease for this line of thinking. It’s the most lethal form of cancer today because it’s a highly complex disease. As part of the Lung Cancer Initiative at Johnson & Johnson, Hannah has assembled a team of engineers to take on this challenge.
McEwen: They all come from fairly diverse backgrounds, working in different parts of healthcare, different procedures, not all with an oncology background, but they really have a passion and innovation for, how do you start with a problem, start with an unmet need, and then identify whether there are technologies, either from within J&J or people who are really good at building partnerships outside of J&J, as well.
Hall: Engineers are helping to address lung cancer? Hannah says, of course, it’s about designing new technologies to identify and treat the disease, and it’s more than that.
McEwen: It’s also about how do you even do a surgical or an interventional procedure to be able to diagnose what someone’s health may be, and then be able to repair or treat the condition that they have. It’s the technologies and physical and mechanical solutions that are used to treat things that are going on in the human body.
Hall: Hannah and her team, for example, often observe lung cancer procedures and ask questions.
McEwen: We will often look at not just what the device is doing that the physician is trying to use in a procedure. But how is it handled? Who is the person who hands the device to the physician? When we observe other things going on, we may see, there are plenty of other staff in that room who also are utilizing different tools in that procedure. And we get to observe firsthand the different challenges they have.
Hall: Those observations help Hannah’s team to not only develop a specific tool, but also identify the need to develop additional technologies, or new ways of using instruments that already exist. For example, could a robotic bronchoscope do more than just enable the doctor to take a sample of a lesion in someone’s lung? What if you could have the ability one day to identify a cancer right there and then?
McEwen: That, at the time of the procedure, is helping me see that my biopsy needle, the lesion it’s in, I can look at it, I can say Oh, it’s under a microscope and see that this is definitely a cancer that I should do something about.
McEwen: How can we decide right there and then yes, I have a good sample and it is cancer, and then maybe one day go ahead and actually treat it in that same procedure?
Hall: In this future state, once cancer had been confirmed the doctor could at the same time inject medicine or apply energy to begin treatment of the tumor. Hannah says this approach may not only be more efficient but it’s also her hope patients would experience less of the undesirable effects commonly seen with systemic therapies.
Hannah also says these new technologies and procedures to treat patients are in development today. Some are even in clinical trials. These tools would be exciting enough on their own, but there’s more to the Lung Cancer Initiative…
McEwen: We are building together solutions that have mechanical device, med tech and informatics solutions with the biological or pharmaceutical treatment modalities that we may use to be able to change someone’s health. That’s what motivates me to come to work every day. It’s the opportunity to change the disease. And it’s an incredible privilege to work with the diverse teams to do that.
Hall: Hannah says she’s excited to see the Lung Cancer Initiative working to one day help transform the lives of millions of patients. She’s working with her team, collaborators and across Johnson & Johnson every day to make that future happen as soon as possible.
Hannah McEwen is the Head of Engineering Sciences for the Lung Cancer Initiative at Johnson & Johnson.
The Lung Cancer Initiative was formed in 2018 to unleash the full potential of science and technology to change the trajectory of this complex disease.
This podcast was produced by Scientific American Custom Media and made possible through the support of the Lung Cancer Initiative at Johnson & Johnson.
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Learn more about how Johnson & Johnson is taking a multi-disciplinary approach to tackle lung cancer.