Logo: University of Southern California

30 Years of Excellence

USC Viterbi's Biomedical Simulations Resource (BMSR) celebrates three decades of funding for innovative work in modeling and simulation.
By: Anna-Catherine Brigida
November 07, 2013 —
This scan shows the brain of an Alzheimer's disease patient. Marmarelis' research seeks to understand Alzheimer's in the brain.

Nearly 30 years ago, biomedical engineering professors Vasilis Marmarelis and David D’Argenio applied for their first round of funding for the Biomedical Simulations Resource (BMSR), a research lab dedicated to the vision of new and better medicine.

They received funding and continued to do so for decades. Recently, the team received funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for a seventh and final term, an unprecedented achievement in the competitive world of research funding.

Typically, research labs receive funding for only a few years, but BMSR’s excellence has allowed it to survive and thrive, reaching the maximum funding period.

“The founding vision has guided our efforts over the past 30 years to expand scientific and technological expertise in biomedical systems modeling and disseminate these methods to the broader biomedical community,” said D’Argenio.

BMSR has contributed innovative research to the biomedical field, including in Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes and cancer. BMSR is unique for its emphasis on the quantitative rather than qualitative.

This approach has revolutionized the biomedical world. BMSR was one of the first groups to use data sets to understand correlations between diseases and certain factors, such as age, ethnicity or gender. Today, this is common practice, with many BMSR-produced software systems, such as ADAPT, dominating the field.

William Jusko, SUNY Distinguished Professor and chair of pharmaceutical sciences at the University at Buffalo, has used the software since its beginning. BMSR's work has helped SUNY Buffalo's Center of Excellence in Pharmacokinetics and Pharmacodynamics thrive.

"We would not have had anywhere near our success without the ADAPT program," Jusko said. 

BMSR has four core research focuses, each led by one of USC Viterbi’s primary biomedical investigators: David D’Argenio, Vasilis Marmarelis, Michael Khoo and Theodore Berger.

Faculty, from left to right: Theodore W. Berger, the David Packard Chair in Engineering; David D'Argenio, Chonette Chair in Biomedical Technology; Michael Khoo, professor of biomedical engineering and pediatrics; Vasilis Marmarelis, professor of biomedical engineering. 

D’Argenio’s research focuses on pharmacokinetic and pharmocodynamics systems analysis. This means that he investigates the way individuals respond to medications and which variables affect them; Marmarelis hopes to understand Alzheimer’s disease by focusing on detection, prevention and treatment; Khoo seeks to understand the way that cardiorespiratory systems interact with the rest of the body, work that could increase understanding of sleep apnea and sickle-cell anemia; finally, Berger’s research focuses on understanding the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for long-term memory.

BMSR currently has 16 clinical collaborative projects that strive to gain a deeper understanding of these key research goals.

In its 30 years, BMSR has worked on 78 collaborative projects with 83 different institutions and 95 investigators.

But it was not always this successful.

The first time the team applied for funding, the request was denied. After that, Marmarelis rethought the group’s approach. He knew the team had an innovative and exciting idea for a research lab, but thought it failed to convey team members’ passion successfully the first time. Radiating excitement about his work became his main goal when the team reapplied. This, along with persistence and belief in oneself, are the keys to success, he said.

After obtaining its first round of funding, the team began to focus on producing work of substance that would gain respect and make a difference in the biomedical world. Over the years, BMSR has produced groundbreaking research on debilitating diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. Many software systems have also been developed at BMSR, including ADAPT, which is now used by all of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies to develop and evaluate new drugs.

This current round of funding will focus on translating ongoing BMSR research into the medical field for practical use. The tools the team has developed could be used for diagnosis, analyzing treatment or even developing new treatments altogether.

“The sustained funding has allowed us to continually improve these methods and to go in new directions,” D’Argenio said.

Due to NIH funding rules, BMSR has reached its funding limit and cannot apply for additional institute grants. This has shifted the focus towards leaving a legacy. The team is developing the idea of a “son of BMSR," an offspring that would focus more on the clinical applications of their research.

“It is of course an unparalleled achievement, and we feel very proud and gratified about that,” Marmarelis said. “But the main excitement comes from the future and what we are going to do next.”