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  Wayne State University, Kresge Eye Institute, Detroit Medical Center partner on microsystems research

University partners are able to access both equipment like this and clean room facilities

Apr 11, 2005 - Restoring sight to the blind is a primary hope behind Dr. Greg Auner’s pioneering work to develop smart sensors. The daunting challenge illustrates the technical hurdles in creating implants that can work with the body and use signals from the human brain.

“This is a new area of endeavor that we and other groups are just beginning to explore,” said Auner, program coordinator for the Smart Sensors and Integrated MicrosystemsProgram within Wayne State University’s College of Engineeringin Detroit. Auner is a professor of electrical, computer and bio-medical engineering.

Auner and the smart-sensors program are working with the Ligon Research Center of Vision at the Kresge Eye Institute in partnership with the Detroit Medical Center. The research effort is one of just 17 institutes in the world exploring the possibility of artificial vision for the blind. Ligon focuses on both retinal and cortical implants to replace not only damaged eyes but chips that relay brain commands.

Reading human brain waves for machines seems like science fiction, but Auner believes the possibilities could obviously help millions. Along with aiding the blind, such sensors could target medication directly to malignant cells, cancer could be detected sooner, and micro-machines could be developed for delicate surgery.

The work demands a cross-disciplinary approach that requires scientists from a myriad of medical fields along with engineers working with nanotechnology and MEMS.“Thus, biological understanding, physical understanding and human-factor understanding must all merge to create a complicated device,” Auner explained.

“For example, it is not enough to just make an integrated micro-system that can sense or stimulate neural tissue. That device must also be bio-encapsulated to fool the body into thinking it is not a foreign entity.”

The Ligon Center is the only facility investigating both electrical and chemical ways to trigger implants. The center is working with several departments at WSU, including ophthalmology, neurosurgery, anatomy and cell biology and electrical & chemical engineering.

“This linkage allows for both academic and clinicians to be housed under the same big tent,” said Mark S. Juzych, associate chair of the Kresge Eye Institute. “This allows for a much easier flow of ideas back and forth. It also allows ‘the idea’ to be brought to the patient much faster since the clinicians and scientists have been collaborating and invested in the project all along.”

The challenge is developing ways for the bio-material layer to bridge critical information to a man-made chip. To do this, organic data must be converted into mechanical messages for implants to use. All this must be done in way the body won’t reject.

“It must have biological interfaces with the device, and must be able to communicate outside the body without causing adverse effects, i.e. wireless power and communications,” Auner said.

Aside from the mechanical challenges, understanding the human body is even more complex.“In general people might think that everything is well understood in the body and in truth, even with all of our knowledge, the body and how it reacts to implants is still a mystery,” Auner said. “Bioimplants can have unintended positive or negative consequences that have to be dealt with.”

Auner’s vision for the Smart Sensors program is to take technology out of the lab to improve lives.“My personal goal is to have an influence on society by transferring research and development into the real-world,” he said. “The use of the research and development at SSIM in the biomedical arena is particularly gratifying.”

The program’s reputation can help attract businesses and researchers to the area, he said.“We want SSIM to be a nationally recognized research and educational institution in emerging Microsystems and also to create spin-off high tech companies and new jobs for the State of Michigan.”

Among the current projects underway at the SSIM are:

  • A three-dimensional ultrasound that detects the earliest stages of cancer.
  • Smart drug-delivery techniques that can target dosages in exact amounts to specific locations in the body to decrease side effects.
  • Micro-machining technology for delicate fetal and infant surgery.
  • Nero-implant chips to diagnose disease and monitor treatment and possibly the restoration of eyesight.
  • Sensors to detect water- and air-borne toxins, including radiation and bio-terrorism.

The science of bio-implants is relatively young. Pacemakers were invented a half-century ago, and took 30 years to perfect. But Auner forecasts an explosion in the technology. “The development of much more complex systems have increased in development exponentially to within a few years,” he said. “I predict an exponential increase in biomicrosystems for the treatment of disease over the next decade.

One of the major obstacles is finding ways to produce complex devices cheaply. Experts say that mass production techniques may solve the problems of non uniformity and costs that presently hamper commercialization efforts.

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