Bill Hawkins: Great Expectations

October 13, 2010 | By Mary-Russell Roberson

In the final keynote talk of the 40th anniversary celebration of Duke’s biomedical engineering department, William A. Hawkins reviewed the history of biomedical engineering and shared his thoughts about the future.

“It’s a fascinating time,” he said. “There are so many things happening as we advance technology. We’re going to be able to change the course of medicine.”William Hawkins

Hawkins has a unique vantage point from which to consider the past and the future. Since graduating from Duke with a degree in electrical and biomedical engineering in 1976, he’s worked for a number of biomedical companies and start-ups all over the United States and in London. Today he’s Chairman and CEO of Medtronic, Inc., the largest independent medical device company in the world.

Hawkins grew up in Durham and has lived in Minneapolis since 2002, but his route from here to there was not, he said, a straight line. He showed the audience a map and outlined the circuitous geographic route his career has taken: Durham, Winston-Salem, Princeton, UVA (to earn an MBA), Indianapolis, San Diego, London, Seattle, San Diego again, San Francisco, Cincinnati, New Jersey, Atlanta, and finally, Minneapolis. However, the first three years in Minneapolis, he was commuting to Santa Rosa, California!

The first medical device, he said, was the stethoscope, which was invented in 1819. Today, hundreds of medical devices are under development, including many described earlier in the day by alumni speakers: implantable heart monitors, implantable epilepsy electrostimulation treatments, new-and-improved imaging techniques, and more. Hawkins also mentioned a new technology Medtronic is working on: replacement heart valves that can be inserted via catheter rather than open-heart surgery. These valves are not yet approved in the United States, although they are approved in other countries.

In looking at where the field has been, Hawkins said in the earlier years of biomedical engineering, “We were very focused on discrete technologies.” This specialization led to advances in microprocessing, battery technology, and information transfer. Engineers are now taking advantage of these technologies in combination to design remarkably tiny and reliable devices that improve and extend lives. Hawkins said, “Biomedical engineering today is focused on convergence of technologies—engineering, life sciences, informatics.”

When Hawkins looks to the future, he sees three broad areas of emphasis: personalized medicine, management of disease rather than symptoms, and preventative and restorative care. He believes personalized medical care will make health care much more effective because physicians will have the tools to pick the treatment that’s most effective for each individual, rather than going through a lengthy process of trial-and-error.

Remote patient management is an example of a personalized medical technology being developed by Medtronic. Implanted devices continuously monitor various bodily functions of the patient and wirelessly transmit this information to physicians or other caregivers. In the case of someone with heart disease, information on heart function might be sent to a physician who could look at the data and decide whether the patient needs to be seen in person or not.

In the case of a child with type 1 diabetes, blood sugar levels could be monitored and sent to the child’s parents or a school nurse, either of whom could take action if the child’s levels got too high or low. “We have this technology today,” Hawkins said. “Getting the FDA to approve it is something we have to work through.”

Hawkins said the current regulatory environment in the United States is a challenge for biomedical engineering companies. “We really need to work as a university and as a society to advance the field of regulatory science,” he said. “There’s a very important role for the FDA, but the FDA needs better resources. If we can help them understand what we do, it will benefit all of us.”

In his parting words, Hawkins said, “Our real strength is the ability to translate ideas into products.” He emphasized innovation, collaboration, and the importance of public policy and regulatory science to the future of biomedical engineering.

“Don’t look local, look global,” he said. “We’re going to be able to impact people’s lives.”