By Nina Huang
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
This year’s University of Washington (UW) Medicine Innovator of the Year, Dr. Ricky Wang, is innovating for better patient outcomes with his latest technology helping to diagnose diseases by just taking a photo of your eye.
Wang, UW professor of bioengineering and ophthalmology is the recipient of the 2023 UW Medicine Inventor of the Year award and will be honored at a reception on Nov. 1. The award recognizes outstanding UW scientists whose inventions have had a major impact on both human health and our local economy.
Wang also holds the George and Martina Kren Endowed Chair in ophthalmology research at the UW.
Wang was born and raised in the rural areas of Changzhou, China in 1965.
The college entrance exams in China had just resumed after the Cultural Revolution and Wang was unsure what to study in high school.
“My father selected that direction for me. He thought precision engineering and precision instrumentation was really needed for lots of industrial applications,” he said.
Wang followed his father’s advice and followed in his engineering footsteps. Wang’s father was a water engineer dealing with water management.
Thus, Wang studied precision engineering at Tianjin University, where he received both his Bachelor in Engineering and Master of Science degrees.
He wanted to further his education and was also drawn to Glasgow’s industry. That’s what piqued his interest to study there. He moved there in 1993 to get his Ph.D. in optical information processing from the University of Glasgow.
“That’s where I started to work using optics and light for biomedical applications,” he said.
After Glasgow, Wang secured his first faculty position at the University of Keele in England. It was a position within the medical school and they were interested in applying optics and light through cellular level and scale resolution of the human body.
“That was the starting point when I started to engage with biomedicine. After I started, it was non-stop because it really got me excited,” he added.
Wang taught, conducted research, and created his own lab during his five years in Keele. He then went on to teach and create his research lab at Cranfield University.
After three years there, Wang moved over to the United States to teach and start his lab at Oregon Health and Science University where he was for another five years.
“I really want to push my technologies in my lab to be clinically translated so it can be used to benefit patients. That’s the most important drive for me to move,” he said.
Wang shared that the environment in the United States to conduct research has been very good and vibrant.
“You have soil here to make your dreams come true,” he shared.
Wang ultimately moved to Seattle and has been teaching and conducting research at the UW since 2010.
He described the UW as a huge environment for clinical translation to apply lab technologies to the human body.
In addition, UW has a very strong culture of working with clinicians in the research labs and has helped to apply his research faster to the clinic settings.
“I’m in bioengineering and our job is really to apply the technologies in the lab for clinical use to benefit the patients,” he added.
Wang’s lab is responsible for the invention of optical coherence tomography angiography (OCTA, or optical microangiography), an imaging technique capable of 3D imaging of blood flow within microcirculatory tissue beds in vivo. This technique has revolutionized how people around the world receive vision care.
Wang works alongside many brilliant minds, but one person in particular is someone he really admires.
Fellow UW colleague, Dr. Murray Johnstone, ophthalmologist and glaucoma specialist,inspires Wang and what he’s working on now.
“His enthusiasm inspires what I’m doing now,” Wang said.
Throughout his career, Wang’s proudest accomplishment has been the ability to use optics to look at microcirculation, which is the blood flow in capillaries.
Wang hopes to continue pushing technologies developed in his lab for further clinical use to benefit and improve patient outcomes with an emphasis on using optics to look at cellular level in the human body to diagnose diseases.
There’s a new smartphone app called Specam X, being developed in his lab to help diagnose certain medical conditions by taking a photo.
One of Wang’s postdoc scholars, Chinghua He, helped develop the app. He started working with Wang in 2018.
The app can be used at a low cost (or for free), but it would be useful in low resource settings such as developing countries to help improve patient outcomes.
For example, they are currently conducting a clinical trial at a hospital in Changchun in northeast China, an area where alcoholism and liver problems are very common.
Instead of having to draw blood and wait for the lab results, one can use the prototype smartphone to take a photo of the patient’s eyeball and from the photo, they are able to predict the bilirubin levels.
Wang shared that the trials so far have been very accurate and successful. He said that they can also use the app to diagnose jaundice in newborn babies.
“Dr. Ricky Wang is always focusing on truly translating technologies in the clinic collaborations and contributions to the general public, and I think that’s very meaningful. I think he will continue to contribute greatly to scientific research,” He said.
He described Wang as a leader who has a collaborative style and someone who works closely with his team to build a productive culture in the lab.
Wang’s impact is undoubtedly widespread.
Princess Imoukhuede, Hunter and Dorothy Simpson Endowed Chair and professor in UW bioengineering, wrote in an email to the BioE community, “This remarkable recognition is a testament to Dr. Wang’s exceptional talent and groundbreaking contributions to the bioscience sector and to UW. His commercial licensing successes have both expanded the boundaries of translation and have the potential to positively impact numerous lives. We are incredibly proud to have such a brilliant mind among us.”
And when Wang isn’t in his lab working on life-changing medical technologies, he’s usually out in nature hiking with his family.
Nina can be reached at email@example.com.