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In Biomedical Engineering, Experts See Big Research Opportunities and Some Funding Challenges


This ultrathin, electronic patch, which can be applied to the wrist for EMG and other measurements, merges electronics and biology. | Courtesy of John Rogers

Bioengineering is already leading to the development of integrated devices for diagnosing and treating diseases or improving health. Researchers are testing implantable, flexible electrodes that can monitor biological function or stimulate cell growth; "lab-on-a-chip" devices that can cheaply diagnose diseases; and better brain-computer interfaces that allow people to control prosthetics or even unmanned aircraft using only brain impulses.

However, the interdisciplinary nature of the field, which relies on experts in engineering, biology, medicine, and physical and materials science, can create challenges for those trying to apply that research and technology. In many cases, they must navigate funding and regulatory agencies accustomed to staying within the bounds of their specialties.

As a result, companies may have to rely on venture capital or crowd-funding instead of government research grants, and to develop technologies for commercial use first, before the military or government agencies adapt them for their own uses, said Amy Kruse, vice president of innovation at Intific, a company that incorporates neuroscience with training and educational software.


Top panel, from left: Gregory Farber, Amy Kruse, Doug Weber; Bottom panel: Gene Robinson, John Rogers, Todd Coleman, Rashid Bashir | Kathleen O'Neil

"Part of the impact of neurotechnology is that it's leading to the creation of a new industry of applied neuroscience, which takes the amazing research out of the lab and into the home, office, or field," Kruse said. There is a big gap between the "as-seen-on-TV" devices, such as simple brainwave monitors to help people meditate or relax, which are available now, and neurotechnology enhancement devices that could be sold by a pharmacist. Those could build upon technology that is currently only used in laboratories to measure more complex brain states (attention, cognitive workload, distraction, drowsiness, etc.). To get there, the industry needs more trusted companies capable of developing more intricate, vetted applications that draw upon the boom in research advances, she said.

Kruse was one of six presenters at a 14 January event entitled "Visionary Frontiers at the Convergence of Biology, Medicine and Engineering" held at AAAS. It was co-sponsored by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Some government agencies are trying to facilitate approval of new biotechnology devices, said Gregory Farber, director of the Office of Technology Development and Coordination at the National Institute of Mental Health. For example, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is implementing an infusion of research funding provided by President Obama's BRAIN Initiative. As it awards funding, Farber said, it has been immediately referring researchers to the Food and Drug Administration, which is responsible for approving medical devices. That way, the FDA can work the researchers to ensure they are collecting the data and asking the questions the agency will need to decide if neurotechnology devices are safe, he said.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a research-funding agency that develops technologies for military uses and to protect national security, is another funder trying to facilitate bioengineering projects. It created a new biological technologies office last April, said Doug Weber, a DARPA neurotechnology program manager.

DARPA's projects currently include research in basic and synthetic biology, understanding the complexity of biological systems, neurological signaling, and human-machine interfaces, which can lead to devices to assist military personnel with brain injuries. He says the key to getting technologies approved for mainstream use is to engage all stakeholders early on so that by the time a device is ready for a clinical trial, researchers have asked the right questions.

Asked how to make interdisciplinary teams work, Rashid Bashir, head of the department of bioengineering at the University of Illinois, said a person has to learn enough about the other fields to have a conversation. He also recommended making the responsibilities for each expert clear, and keeping the relationship a true collaboration on a problem, not just instruction about one step.

Todd Coleman, director of the Neural Interaction Laboratory at the University of California, San Diego, said he has learned first-hand that working in different fields can spur the development of new techniques in one's core discipline, a fact that he uses to attract more people to interdisciplinary fields. Coleman earned a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, but after a postdoctoral appointment in computational neuroscience, he has continued to work on interdisciplinary teams on neurobiological challenges. One of his recent projects, which uses biofeedback from a person's brain to fly an unmanned aerial vehicle along a designated route, required developing a new type of applied mathematics, he said.

John Rogers, director of the F. Seitz Materials Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois, faced a similar challenge. Silicon electronics are usually hard and flat, but biological structures are curved, irregular, and three-dimensional. To better integrate circuits within living bodies, he developed flexible electronics that can be turned into a biological-like membranes or three-dimensional structures with a variety of shapes.

The time-honored way to become involved in interdisciplinary research, said Gene Robinson, director of the Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois, is to focus on one specialty first and then branch out later. But Robinson also pointed out there is great interest in experimenting with hybrid training programs to better prepare future scientists and engineers to work at the boundaries of the disciplines.

Weber also recommended finding mentors who can provide guidance, from both inside universities and outside them, and collaborate with established experts in complementary fields. Finally, think beyond the NIH and the National Science Foundation for biomedical engineering research funding — look at DARPA, military branches and other government agencies, said Kruse.

"Our work is to live at the intersection of biology, engineering, and the physical sciences," said Weber of DARPA. "I really do believe that there are tremendous opportunities at that intersection, and we're working hard to find and exploit those opportunities." 


Kathleen O'Neil

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