A match made at Case

Case launched their careers and their lives together. Now Jay and Harita Patel have come back to be part of something big.

By Robert L. Smith

After leaving successful careers in the tech industry, Jayendra and Harita Patel were looking to make a meaningful impact with their time and money. Both earned master’s degrees from the Case School of Engineering, where they met and fell in love in the 1980s.

Now, Case Quad seemed to have a match for them again. Healthcare and computer engineering ranked high among their shared passions when, in the fall of 2017, they met Anant Madabhushi over dinner in a restaurant in Cupertino, California, not far from the headquarters of their former employer, Apple.

The Case professor of biomedical engineering told them about his medical imaging lab, where “deep learning” computers were identifying disease patterns faster and more precisely than doctors could. The advances offered new hope for patients with cancer and other dreaded diseases.

 “Driving home in the car that night, we both said, ‘This is it,’” Jayendra “Jay” Patel, MS ’84, recalled. “For us, it was the right combination, using computing technology—which we understand—to treat cancer, which we are passionate about.”

The couple’s $500,000 commitment to Madabhushi’s lab—the first major gift to the Center for Computational Imaging and Personalized Diagnostics (CCIPD) — provides the kind of boost that can give wings to promising research.

With a growing staff to support, the lab needs funds for basic operating expenses. But an exceptional gift does more than pay the bills. Madabhushi, PhD, the F. Alex Nason Professor II of Biomedical Engineering at the Case School of Engineering, said the Patel support emboldens his ambitions.

“Our group is nearly 50 people now, so there’s a lot of mouths to feed. But it’s more than that,” he said. “They validated that what we are doing is meaningful. It resonates.”

 He’s a tall, soft-spoken 42 year old with a runner’s physique. A goatee adds a bit of a cool factor to a professorial bearing. The kind smile is genuine, colleagues say, as is the sense of urgency. His discoveries could be lifesaving.

Patent plaques bedeck the walls of Madabhushi’s office, attesting to the innovation blooming on the fifth floor of the Wickenden Building. The CCIPD, founded by Madabhushi just six years ago, is averaging a patent a month and now accounts for about 10 percent of all patents awarded to CWRU. Madabhushi (pronounced “mod-A-bushi”) credits his success to his staff and the spirit of innovation at CWRU, but also to the neighborhood.

His lab collaborates with researchers and doctors at nearby University Hospitals, Cleveland Clinic, and the Cleveland VA Medical Center. Access to top medical professionals is part of what lured him here from Rutgers University in 2012, he said. He has not been disappointed.

“It’s a massive medical enterprise that we’re sitting in,” he remarked.

Meanwhile, he finds the openness of Clevelanders refreshing and productive, especially in contrast to the status consciousness of the East Coast. If he wants to reach a top doc at Cleveland Clinic, he said, “I can shoot out a text and get a response in five minutes.”

 

On a visit to CCIPD offices, Harita Patel remarked upon the international diversity of the team.

With the support of the Case School of Engineering, he’s begun reaching farther afield, sharing his research and his vision in other parts of the country, and trying to build a broader network of partners and investors. He’s come to know the Patels, whom he calls “wonderful people,” and who have shown a keen interest in his work. 

 “What’s great for me, personally, is that they’re not hands off. They have a lot of experience. They have a wide network,” he said. “It’s not just the dollars--which we are extremely grateful for--it’s the fact that they’re championing this work.”

In September, the Patels hosted a dinner at their home in Cupertino for Madabhushi and 75 or so of their friends and colleagues. The guests included Case alumnus and renowned computer scientist Donald Knuth, CWRU trustee and venture capitalist Bob Pavey, and Venkataramanan “Ragu” Balakrishnan, the new dean of the Case School of Engineering.

After dinner, Madabhushi stood and told the story of his lab, sharing Midwest innovation with a Silicon Valley tech crowd.

Advancing a Cleveland specialty

Medical imaging has long been a Case and a Cleveland expertise, dating to Dayton C. Miller, a Case professor of physics who produced the world’s first full-body X-ray in 1896. Chemist Paul Lauterbur ’51 won a Nobel Prize for work that made possible magnetic resonance imaging—the MRI. Former Dean Jeffrey Duerk, PhD ’87, earned some 40 patents during his tenure at Case, mostly for innovations in medical imaging.

The local operations of companies like Picker, Marconi, Philips and ViewRay established the state of the art, but Madabhushi is taking the craft into new dimensions. Using machine learning techniques, his team has been training computers to read medical images and detect patterns that point to disease.

They have found that computers can examine thousands of images--and billions of pixels within those images--and spy clues that escape the human eye. In multiple tests, his diagnostic techniques have bested radiologists and pathologists by more accurately identifying cancers and cardiovascular disease. What’s more, the smart computers can often deduce the seriousness of a disease, and thus inform a better course of treatment.

This could mean a less traumatic, less expensive cure, said Dr. Hannah Gilmore, a breast cancer specialist and the director of surgical pathology at University Hospitals.

Doctors who are unsure about the presence of a disease, or its seriousness, often opt for aggressive therapies—like surgery, radiology or chemotherapy— only to find out later it was unnecessary. That’s because there may be only so much they could glean from the image of a tissue sample.

“But if you can find out on a machine that an abnormality is not worrisome, you can save procedures,” she said. “One of the things he’s doing, he’s finding ways to reduce the procedures a patient needs to make an informed decision.”

Gilmore, an associate professor of pathology at the CWRU School of Medicine, has been collaborating with Madabhushi’s center since it opened and is excited about the prospects for healthcare.

“I think this is transformational,” she said. “I think it’s complementary to what pathologists do, and it can make us better and faster.”

 Finally, there is the benefit to humankind, which Harita Patel finds especially attractive. The Internet-based service could be used to examine an image that has been scanned into a computer anywhere in the world. That could make a huge difference in a nation like her native India, where imaging specialists are spread perilously thin.

“A local doctor would still make the decisions,” Madabhushi said, “but we’re giving them added insight and support.”

From Case to Apple and back

Much remains to be proven before the technology can be applied routinely and widely. Madabhushi said he needs to do more testing with larger cohorts at more institutions to verify the reliability of his algorithms, the instructions telling computers what to do. That will take time and money. But Harita Patel, among others, thinks he is onto something revolutionary.

The former Harita Parikh came to Cleveland from India to study computer engineering, having graduated from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology Bombay. She met her future husband in Crawford Hall, where they were teamed up on a class project in a computer hardware course. They married soon after she graduated in 1983.

Harita Patel followed her husband to Apple, a young computer company that had popularized the personal computer but that was now struggling to survive.

“People used to laugh and tell me, ‘You’re going to be turning out the lights,” she said.

Apple rebounded with the return of its founder, Steve Jobs, and Harita Patel became a believer in the power of a smart and visionary leader. She worked at Apple for more than 25 years, retiring in 2014.

Jay Patel, a graduate of Mumbai University—Madabhushi’s alma mater—left Apple to assume key roles at other technology companies, specializing in cyber security. He also retired relatively young. When he and his wife heard from Michael Dolsak, the associate dean for development and external affairs at the Case School of Engineering, they were ready to reconnect with Case.

Dolsak introduced them to Madabhushi, who shared their Indian heritage and more. Harita Patel said she liked his idea of using artificial intelligence, or machine learning, to enrich medical decision-making. She also liked the hope he offered cancer patients, who maybe could escape costly and traumatic treatments.

“Healthcare right now is so expensive for so many people,” she said. “We know people who had cancer. A disease like that drains you out of any resources you have. His research cuts out unnecessary treatments. This is very exciting to us. When this goes mainstream, it’s going to make a huge difference.”

She also likes that the technology can be applied nearly anywhere.

“It can instantaneously make a difference internationally, in all parts of the world, and the poorest of the poor can benefit,” she said. “So this was a no brainer for us.”

Added Jay Patel with a smile: “We’re putting a lot of pressure on Anant.”

The gift is $500,000 across five years. Its represents the Patel’s first gift to their alma mater and the first major private gift to the lab. The contribution is intended to help the CCIPD broaden its research and bring in an expert to work in a new disease area. But that’s just for starters.

“The hope is that we can leverage their gift and recruit additional supporters and more funds,” Madabhushi said. “We have a shot at creating something unique and impactful and that can be a major boost to the local economy.”

He’s been sharing the vision of a much larger lab—a stand-alone institute, in fact—what he’s calling the Case Computational Diagnostics Institute. He describes a $500 million research complex that would make Cleveland the global center of computerized diagnostics and precision medicine.

He knows his vision is grand. He also now knows he has influential believers, including two new friends in Cupertino.

If you wish to support the Center for Computational Imaging and Personal Diagnostics, or would like to learn more, contact Mike Dolsak at the Case School of Engineering; Michael.dolsak@case.edu, 216-368-1110. 



At a recent staff meeting, CCIPD researchers connect with colleagues in California and Catalonia via video conferencing technology.