Rafael Davalos named American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering Fellow

March 15, 2019

Picture of Rafael Davalos
Rafael Davalos in his Kelly Hall lab

Rafael Davalos, the L. Preston Wade Professor in Virginia Tech’s Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics within the College of Engineering, has been elected to the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE) College of Fellows.

Davalos was selected for outstanding contributions to the field through his invention of new technologies that make inoperable tumors treatable for thousands of cancer patients.

AIMBE held a formal induction ceremony on March 25 as part of the institute’s annual meeting at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in Washington, D.C.

“Dr. Davalos’ research really embodies the bench-to-bedside approach,” said Pamela VandeVord, the N. Waldo Harrison Professor and interim department chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics. “The technologies that he has developed and continues to advance are already having an impact. These inventions contribute to saving or prolonging lives every day through ongoing innovative cancer detection and treatment.”

Davalos invented a form of microfluidic-based dielectrophoresis, a method of separating and identifying cells based on their size, electrical properties, or biophysical properties. The technique can be used in targeted cancer therapies and may have additional applications in stem cell therapy, tumor cell detection, and sepsis detection.

Perhaps Davalos’ most recognized invention is irreversible electroporation, a focal ablation technique used to treat cancer patients with inoperable tumors. Irreversible electroporation uses minimally invasive probes to deliver low-energy pulses to targeted tissue, a process that kills diseased cells by destabilizing their membranes. The procedure enables treatment near critical structures like major blood vessels and nerves, allowing clinicians to target previously unreachable tissue.

As a method of cancer treatment, irreversible electroporation has more than doubled the median survival time of stage III pancreatic cancer patients. It has also been used to treat patients suffering from prostate, liver, and kidney cancers.

Davalos is currently working on the next generation of irreversible electroporation technology and hopes to target brain cancer in collaboration with colleagues at the Brain Tumor Center of Excellence at the Wake Forest School of Medicine and the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine.

Through his groundbreaking research, Davalos has been issued 22 patents, licensed his technology to five companies, and launched two startup companies – both of which employ Virginia Tech alumni.

“I’m truly honored to be given this recognition from AIMBE,” said Davalos, who also directs the Bioelectromechanical Systems Lab. “It’s an organization that really focuses on application and recognizes people who are trying to facilitate impact in the field, so to be included among this prestigious group is humbling. My research really focuses on trying to take a discovery all the way through the development phase to implementation because nothing beats knowing that your technology can play a small role in helping patients.”

Davalos has previously been honored with a National Science Foundation CAREER Award, a Wallace H. Coulter Foundation Early Career Award, and the Nation’s Most Promising Engineer Award from the Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Awards Corporation (HENAAC). He has also been recognized as an American Society of Mechanical Engineers Fellow and a Coulter Fellow.

Davalos earned his bachelor’s degree from Cornell University and master’s degree and Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley.

His AIMBE Fellow award brings the total count to four for the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics, as primary faculty members Stefan DumaH. Clay Gabler, and Pamela VandeVord have all previously been recognized with the honor. Departmental affiliates Padma Rajagopalan and Joel Stitzel have also received AIMBE Fellow status.