This podcast was produced for Johnson & Johnson’s Lung Cancer Initiative by Scientific American Custom Media, a separate division of the magazine’s editorial board.
This interview with Hannah McEwen, PhD, Head of Engineering Science for the Lung Cancer Initiative at Johnson & Johnson, will discuss new procedures that offer minimally invasive solutions to aid in the identification, diagnosis and treatment of lung lesions at an early stage. These include robotic bronchoscopes that help oncologists diagnose hard-to-reach lung nodules and treatments that may one day be used to deliver treatment directly to early-stage tumors.
Megan Room: Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death worldwide. Why? Because it is difficult to detect in its early stages and difficult to treat once discovered. Johnson & Johnson’s Lung Cancer Initiative is working to reverse this trend. And to do this, it needs not only doctors and researchers, but also engineers. Hannah McEwen is the Group’s Head of Engineering Sciences.
She recently sat down with Scientific American Custom Media to discuss the role engineering can play in transforming lung cancer diagnosis and treatment.
Hall: When we hear about the field of engineering, it is not always associated with medicine. When Hannah McEwen began her engineering career, she did so thinking about the possibilities of applying engineering principles and problem-solving techniques to biology and medicine to improve health care.
Hannah McEwen: If I go back to my early days, even at my university, undergrad, I really started to fall in love with this idea that engineering can really be used to transform a patient’s health.
Hall: This love blossomed during his first internship, working on electronic devices to give a sense of sound to people who are profoundly deaf or hard of hearing. She says these cochlear implants are a shining example of how engineering can improve quality of life.
McEwen: We apply physics, mechanics and electrical engineering, and it can transform someone’s life from one day not hearing anything to then being able to hear voices, people and sounds and truly have 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 began collaborating with colleagues across the company on ambitious new projects.
McEwen: We don’t just think about waiting for someone to have a disease and then consider treating it. But what can we do to intervene earlier in this disease progression?
Hall: Lung cancer is an ideal disease for this line of thinking. It is the deadliest form of cancer today because it is a very complex disease. As part of Johnson & Johnson’s Lung Cancer Initiative, Hannah assembled a team of engineers to tackle this challenge.
McEwen: They all come from quite 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 to start with a problem, start with a need not satisfied, and then identify if there are technologies, either within J&J or people who are also very good at building partnerships outside of J&J.
Hall: Engineers help fight lung cancer? Hannah says, of course, it’s about designing new technologies to identify and treat disease, and it’s more than that.
McEwen: It is also about knowing how to perform a surgical or interventional procedure to be able to diagnose a person’s medical condition and then be able to repair or treat the condition from which they suffer. These are the physical and mechanical technologies and solutions that are used to deal with the things that happen 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 the doctor is trying to use in a procedure does. But how is it managed? Who is the person giving the device to the doctor? When we observe other things happening, we can see that there are many other staff in this room who are also using different tools in this procedure. And we can observe first-hand the various challenges they face.
Hall: These observations help Hannah’s team not only develop a specific tool, but also identify the need to develop additional technologies or new ways to use instruments that already exist. For example, could a robotic bronchoscope do more than just allow the doctor to take a sample from a lesion in someone’s lung? What if you could one day have the ability to identify cancer on the spot?
McEwen: That at the time of the procedure helps 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 it’s definitely a cancer that I should do something about.
McEwen: How do we decide on the spot and then yes, I have a good sample and it’s cancer, then maybe one day go ahead and treat it with the same procedure?
Hall: In this future state, once the cancer was confirmed, the doctor could at the same time inject drugs or apply energy to begin treating the tumor. Hannah says this approach may not only be more effective, but she also hopes that patients will experience fewer adverse effects commonly seen with systemic therapies.
Hannah also says that these new technologies and procedures for treating patients are in development today. Some are even in clinical trials. These tools would be exciting enough on their own, but there is more to the Lung Cancer Initiative…
McEwen: We are building solutions together that have mechanical devices, medical and computer technology solutions with biological or pharmaceutical treatment modalities that we can use to be able to change someone’s health. This is what motivates me to come to work every day. This is an opportunity to change the disease. And it is an incredible privilege to work with the various teams to achieve this.
Hall: Hannah says she is thrilled to see the Lung Cancer Initiative working to one day help transform the lives of millions of patients. She works every day with her team, her associates and all of Johnson & Johnson to make this future a reality as quickly as possible.
Hannah McEwen is Head of Engineering Science for the Lung Cancer Initiative at Johnson & Johnson.
The Lung Cancer Initiative was created in 2018 to unlock 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 with support from Johnson & Johnson’s Lung Cancer Initiative.
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Learn more on how Johnson & Johnson is taking a multidisciplinary approach to fighting lung cancer.