Christopher H. Contag

Advances in Biomedicine are redefining health and disease


Christopher H. Contag, Director, Institute for Quantitative Health Science and Engineering, Michigan State University



Imaging and sensing tools have catalyzed a paradigm shift in animal models of human biology and disease by enabling detection and visualization of the very small changes that precede the onset of symptoms. Traditionally disease has been defined at the time a patient becomes symptomatic, however, the advances in animal models has led to the development of clinical tools and methods for monitoring health and disease in humans that can detect changes early and even predict risk years or decades prior to symptoms. As these tools for assessing health risk are improving and are applied clinically, the threshold between health and disease will need to be redefined. If we use cancer as an example, current technologies for the detection of cancer lack the sensitivity for early detection at times when therapy would be most effective, and cannot detect minimal residual disease that persists after conventional therapies. To impact this disease, we will need to develop methods to sense and then visualize small numbers of cancer initiating cells and move from detection limits of 1 cm to 1 mm or even 100 µm diameter masses. Optical imaging has the sensitivity for this level of detection and there are a number of recent advances that will enable the use of optics in the clinic for cancer detection. New instruments based on micro-optical designs can be used to reach in the body to reveal microanatomic and molecular detail that are indicators of early cancers. We are advancing the technologies that enable miniaturization of 3-D scanning confocal microscopes and Raman endoscopes to examine tissue in situ for early anatomic and molecular indicators of disease, in real time, and at cellular resolution. The advances in genomics is identifying markers of risk that can be used years or even decades prior to the onset of disease, and by identifying at-risk populations, the new tools in imaging can be used to determine onset and time to treat. The emerging combinations of risk assessment tools, methods for early detection and prognostication, and instruments that reveal disease states in finer detail serve to provide greater information to clinicians for more informed, and directed therapies. These advances are redefining the threshold that separates health from disease and changing healthcare.


Dr. Contag joined Michigan State University in 2017 as the founding director of the Institute for Quantitative Health Science and Engineering (IQ) and the inaugural chair of the new Department of Biomedical Engineering in the College of Engineering. He is also a professor in the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics. As professor emeritus in the department of pediatrics at Stanford University he maintains connections to various programs and departments at Stanford. Dr. Contag received his B.S. in Biology from the University of Minnesota, St. Paul in 1982. He received his Ph.D. in Microbiology from the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis in 1988, where he did his dissertation research on the topic of viral infections of the central nervous system. He was a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University from 1990-1994 in the Department of Microbiology where he studied mother-to-infant transmission of HIV, and then joined the faculty in Pediatrics at Stanford in 1995 with a joint appointment in Microbiology and Immunology and courtesy appointments in Bioengineering and Radiology. Dr. Contag served as the Associate Chief of the Division of Neonatal and Developmental Medicine, the director of Stanford’s Center for Innovation in In Vivo Imaging (SCI3) and co-director of both the Molecular Imaging Program at Stanford (MIPS) and Child Health Research Institute (CHRI) at Stanford University. Dr. Contag has developed and used noninvasive imaging approaches to reveal molecular processes in living subjects, to understand host pathogen interactions, to advance diagnostic and therapeutic strategies for cancer, and to reveal the nuances of stem cell engraftment and expansion. The initial imaging tools imaged biological functions at the macroscopic scale and this has led to a need to develop tools for imaging at the microscopic scale-these include miniature confocal microscopes that reach into the body for early diagnosis, and Raman-based endoscopes. Dr. Contag’s work with extracellular vesicles (EVs), exosomes and micro-vesicles, has focused on their biological and diagnostic relevance as well as engineering EVs as drug delivery systems. Dr. Contag is a founding member, and past president of the Society for Molecular Imaging (now part of WMIS) and recent past president and a Fellow of WMIS. For his fundamental contributions in the field of molecular imaging, he was awarded the Achievement Award from the Society for the Molecular Imaging. For his fundamental contributions to the field of optics he was awarded the Britton Chance Award from the International Society for Optics and Photonics (SPIE). Dr. Contag was a founder of Xenogen Corp., now part of PerkinElmer, a company with the mission of commercializing in vivo bioluminescence and fluorescence imaging, a founder of BioEclipse Inc., a company aimed at improving cancer immunotherapy, and a founder of PixelGear, a point-of-care pathology company.