TAG: "Innovation"

Taking up the tricorder challenge in the spirit of ‘Bones’


UC San Diego professor heads Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE physician oversight team.

By Patti Wieser, UC San Diego

Working on the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE is, well, a bit infectious.

“’Star Trek’ is one of the things that tugs on the heart strings of many around the world and I’m not immune to that,” said Gene “Rusty” Kallenberg, M.D., professor and vice chair, Department of Family Medicine and Public Health at the UC San Diego School of Medicine.

Kallenberg is leading the physician oversight team for the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE for which the UC San Diego Clinical and Translational Research Institute (CTRI) has been selected as the testing site. Inspired by the medical tricorder in the “Star Trek TV series and movies, the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE is a global competition sponsored by the Qualcomm Foundation to develop a consumer-friendly, mobile device capable of diagnosing and interpreting 15 physiological conditions and capturing vital health metrics. Ten teams from six different countries have been selected as finalists. As part of the final testing round, teams will compete in both diagnostic experience evaluations and consumer testing, beginning this summer. The final judging and awards ceremony will then take place in early 2016 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Star Trek TV show.

“We are very excited to partner with UC San Diego on this important stage of the competition,” said Grant Campany, senior director, Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE. “Our finalist teams are developing real medical Tricorder devices that must diagnose 15 medical conditions and capture five vital signs, but the submissions must also be packaged in a consumer-friendly manner. Therefore, this final testing phase is critical in seeing how consumer testers recruited by UC San Diego respond to the overall experience.”

In his Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE role, Kallenberg is enlisting the support of physicians in the recruitment of consumer testers for the experimental devices. To help him, he assembled a physician oversight team, made up of UC San Diego physicians Dustin Lillie, Benjamin Johnson and Amy Leu. Consumer testers are volunteers with one or more of the 15 conditions who will test the devices and provide feedback via surveys. Kallenberg is confident the project will attract physicians and consumer testers alike.

Empower patients

“It’s intriguing, intellectually challenging and very much on the cutting edge of health care technology for enabling self-assessment, self-diagnosis and self-monitoring,” Kallenberg said. “A tricorder could empower patients.”

The physician oversight team first had to ensure there was enough epidemiological data to support the ability to find an adequate number of consumer testers.

“Having enough people is the biggest challenge,” Kallenberg said. “Cases for acute conditions such as pneumonia will come from day-to-day acute care settings and our primary care and emergency medicine colleagues; those for chronic conditions such as diabetes and atrial fibrillation will come from patient databases; and rarer conditions such as melanoma and tuberculosis will come from either specialty colleagues/clinics or county health departments.”

The team also is addressing the work flow associated with testing.

“How do you talk to potential testers, how do you gauge their willingness to help, and how do you logistically and mechanically carry out the testing?” Kallenberg asked.

His team is developing steps for orienting testers to the particular device they will use, having them use it, and enabling them to assess the user friendliness and experience of each. The project, while not actually a research study, has Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval in its capacity for oversight on patient privacy rules for the consumer testers. The testers, who are not research subjects, will be informed they are using prototypes.

The physician oversight team also will be in charge of monitoring any medical emergencies and fielding questions during the testing.

“This is a test of the devices’ ability to detect conditions which we already know testers have by virtue of other gold standard tests used in clinical practice,” said Kallenberg. “They will be testing a specific device to see if it can detect their condition.”

Some tests will take about an hour; others will require longer periods.

Kallenberg became involved in the project more than a year ago at the request of Erik Viirre, M.D., Ph.D., the medical and technical director for the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE and an adjunct professor in the departments of neurosciences, surgery and cognitive science at UC San Diego. Viirre believed Epic, UC San Diego Health System’s electronic medical record system, would be an obvious way to identify patients as potential consumer testers, and asked Kallenberg if he would oversee the testing process.

“One thing about academic medicine is you get approached about interesting projects all the time and the other thing about academic medicine is you often say ‘yes,’” said Kallenberg with a grin. “I thought this project was intriguing from the start. Once the oversight team came together and we got into the project, it became infectiously fascinating.”

From house calls to high-tech tricorders

Kallenberg hails from a family of physicians. As a youngster, he often accompanied his father, a GP, on house calls in Cincinnati’s underserved Over the Rhine district, to poor suburban homes with pot-bellied stoves and dirt floors, and to nursing facilities. Kallenberg described his dad as “very much old-style general practice medicine.” Kallenberg also had “bunches of uncles who were physicians and surgeons so medicine was pretty much in the blood,” he said. Contemporary relatives with medical connections include Kallenberg’s wife and his brother, both physicians; his sister, a nurse/counselor; and in-laws, nieces and nephews who have direct or indirect links to medicine. Along his path — from growing up in Ohio to receiving a medical degree at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and completing his internship and fellowship training at Harbor-UCLA County Medical Center, to caring for patients, teaching medical students and supporting an integrative medicine approach — Kallenberg has marveled at medical and technological advancements that improve the lives of humans.

Star Trek: The Next Generation made him a true Trekkie, but since the beginning, the show has sparked his interest in medical technology and created an abiding interest in the medical staff of Starfleet starships. “I’ve always kept an eye on the physicians in ‘Star Trek,’” he said. “I use Bones (McCoy), Beverly Crusher and Voyager’s Emergency Medical Hologram duty officer as examples of primary care physicians when talking to medical students.”

He lauded the philosophy of Star Trek” and described creator Gene Roddenberry as a “genius” who tapped into what was truly essential about mankind. “The wonderful thing about ‘Star Trek is that it exemplified what humanity could be and hopefully will become,” Kallenberg said. “The series had human, philosophical stories about life, with ethical challenges and conundrums, and wonderful adventures, and they had the timeline for achieving that enlightened state about right, too — the 2400s!”

For Kallenberg and his team, the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE is a Star Trek-inspired adventure that just may move the tricorder from science fiction to science reality.

“Wired health care is the next step, and the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE is part of that future,” Kallenberg said.

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Quest to create a real-world tricorder


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Good bone, bad bone


Scientists explore new parameter of bone quality that measures strength instead of density.

By Julie Cohen, UC Santa Barbara

For people taking glucocorticoids such as prednisone, the increased risk of bone fracture is a well-documented side effect. Used to treat a variety of medical conditions, including autoimmune diseases and allergies, glucocorticoids are known to cause rapid deterioration in bone strength.

Until now, doctors have been able to measure bone loss — a process that happens slowly, over time — but haven’t had the means for gauging actual bone strength. That has changed thanks to a new hand-held instrument developed in the Hansma Lab at UC Santa Barbara. Called the OsteoProbe, the device uses reference point indentation (RPI) to measure mechanical properties of bone at the tissue level.

A new clinical trial, conducted at the Hospital del Mar in Barcelona, Spain, shows that RPI is sensitive enough to reflect changes in cortical bone indentation following treatment with osteoporosis therapies in patients newly exposed to glucocorticoids. Standard measurement techniques were unable to detect bone changes in this patient population. The trial results are reported in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research.

“This new paper is a real breakthrough because it’s the first time it’s been possible to do a longitudinal study of bone material properties in patients,” said co-author Paul Hansma, professor emeritus in UCSB’s Department of Physics. “Up until now, medical professionals have been limited to doing bone mineral density studies, which can take a year or more to show bone changes.”

According to Hansma, measuring bone mineral density (BMD) using today’s standard, dual X-ray absorptiometry (DXA) provides only a partial picture. “DXA measures density, which sounds like a material property but isn’t,” he said. “DXA measures how much calcium bone contains but provides no information about bone quality, and it’s not just how much bone you have that’s important, it’s how good that bone is.”

The OsteoProbe works similarly to a center punch — the tool that makes a slight indentation on a surface to indicate the correct placement of a nail. It sets a localized reference point at the bone’s surface that enables precise indentation measurements of bone strength. It was developed by Hansma and colleagues Connor Randall and Dan Bridges, staff research associate and development assistant engineer, respectively, in UCSB’s Department of Physics.

The instrument is now manufactured for commercial research applications by ActiveLife Scientific, a Santa Barbara company founded by UCSB graduates Davis Brimer and Alex Proctor. Brimer and Proctor won the campus’s annual New Venture Competition in 2007 and used the $10,000 prize as startup capital.

About the device

The OsteoProbe measures the bone material strength index (BMSi), which in previously published papers has been shown to be a valuable predictor of bone fracture risk. The index values are similar to percentage scores on an exam. A BMSi of 90 or greater is excellent, 80 to 90 good, 70 to 80 fair, 60 to 70 poor and below 60 very poor.

A study conducted at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, demonstrated the device’s ability to successfully detect bone quality deterioration in diabetic patients, independent of BMD. In another study conducted at Leiden University in the Netherlands, the tool successfully distinguished between patients with and without fracture, not only in patients with osteoporosis but also in those with osteopenia, the precursor to osteoporosis.

“Bone fracture is becoming more and more of a serious problem as people live longer,” Hansma said. “It’s exciting that it’s now possible to measure BMSi in living patients and hopefully this can guide physicians in the future in choosing appropriate therapies to prevent bone fracture, especially in elderly people.”

Research is ongoing

Exactly how the BMSi relates to the specialized quantities measured by conventional mechanical testing is a focus of current research. In fact, in a recent paper published in the Journal of the Mechanical Behavior of Biomedical Materials, UCSB Chancellor Henry T. Yang and two of his graduate students used finite element analysis to investigate the link between BMSi and the mechanical properties of bone itself.

“What’s new in this paper is the ability to correlate indentation measurements from patients’ bones to computer simulations that can predict the strength of the bones,” said Yang, who is also a professor of mechanical engineering. “Such predictions are based on the measured material properties of the bone samples. The results open the door to clinical applications in diagnosis and monitoring, in performing orthopedic surgeries and in developing new therapies.”

The paper’s lead author, Kevin Hoffseth, a graduate student in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, noted that the study results suggest RPI could become an integral part in linking clinical results to the mechanical properties of bone related to its health.

“Combining theory and experiment with finite element simulations and indentation testing was an effective approach to study bone indentation and failure — and the link to mechanical properties,” he said.

Clinical trials currently underway in some 20 locations are exploring bone health in a variety of ways. One European study is comparing the bone quality of patients in Norway to that of patients in Spain. People in Norway tend to have higher BMD and a greater frequency of fracture than do people in Spain, Hansma noted.

“That’s the opposite of what it should be if BMD were all that mattered,” he added. “So that means that BMD isn’t all that matters and the hope is that this instrument will reveal the difference in the BMSi between patients in Norway and in Spain.”

Hansma posited that such medical bone diagnostics could become an important feature of future therapeutic treatments.

“Now that it is possible to measure whether bone is good or bad in research studies, we can begin learning what diet, exercises, vitamins and pharmaceutical drugs contribute to making bone good,” he said. “After the OsteoProbe gets FDA approval, individual physicians will be able to use it to help them decide about the best therapeutic treatments for their patients.”

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‘Smart bandage’ detects bedsores before they are visible to doctors


UC Berkeley findings could provide major boost to tackling a growing health problem.

By Sarah Yang, UC Berkeley

Engineers at the University of California, Berkeley, are developing a new type of bandage that does far more than stanch the bleeding from a paper cut or scraped knee.

Thanks to advances in flexible electronics, the researchers, in collaboration with colleagues at UC San Francisco, have created a new “smart bandage” that uses electrical currents to detect early tissue damage from pressure ulcers, or bedsores, before they can be seen by human eyes – and while recovery is still possible.

“We set out to create a type of bandage that could detect bedsores as they are forming, before the damage reaches the surface of the skin,” said Michel Maharbiz, a UC Berkeley associate professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences and head of the smart-bandage project. “We can imagine this being carried by a nurse for spot-checking target areas on a patient, or it could be incorporated into a wound dressing to regularly monitor how it’s healing.”

The researchers exploited the electrical changes that occur when a healthy cell starts dying. They tested the thin, non-invasive bandage on the skin of rats and found that the device was able to detect varying degrees of tissue damage consistently across multiple animals.

Tackling a growing health problem

The findings, published today (March 17) in the journal Nature Communications, could provide a major boost to efforts to stem a health problem that affects an estimated 2.5 million U.S. residents at an annual cost of $11 billion.

Pressure ulcers, or bedsores, are injuries that can result after prolonged pressure cuts off adequate blood supply to the skin. Areas that cover bony parts of the body, such as the heels, hips and tailbone, are common sites for bedsores. Patients who are bedridden or otherwise lack mobility are most at risk.

“By the time you see signs of a bedsore on the surface of the skin, it’s usually too late,” said Dr. Michael Harrison, a professor of surgery at UCSF and a co-investigator  of the study. “This bandage could provide an easy early-warning system that would allow intervention before the injury is permanent. If you can detect bedsores early on, the solution is easy. Just take the pressure off.”

Bedsores are associated with deadly septic infections, and recent research has shown that odds of a patient dying are 2.8 times higher when they have pressure ulcers. The growing prevalence of diabetes and obesity has increased the risk factors for bedsores.

“The genius of this device is that it’s looking at the electrical properties of the tissue to assess damage. We currently have no other way to do that in clinical practice,” said Harrison. “It’s tackling a big problem that many people have been trying to solve in the last 50 years. As a clinician and someone who has struggled with this clinical problem, this bandage is great.”

Cells as capacitors and resistors

The researchers printed an array of dozens of electrodes onto a thin, flexible film. They discharged a very small current between the electrodes to create a spatial map of the underlying tissue based upon the flow of electricity at different frequencies, a technique called impedance spectroscopy.

The researchers pointed out that a cell’s membrane is relatively impermeable when functioning properly, thus acting like an insulator to the cell’s conductive contents and drawing the comparison to a capacitor. As a cell starts to die, the integrity of the cell wall starts to break down, allowing electrical signals to leak through, much like a resistor.

“Our device is a comprehensive demonstration that tissue health in a living organism can be locally mapped using impedance spectroscopy,” said study lead author Sarah Swisher, a Ph.D. candidate in electrical engineering and computer sciences at UC Berkeley.

To mimic a pressure wound, the researchers gently squeezed the bare skin of rats between two magnets. They left the magnets in place for one or three hours while the rats resumed normal activity. The resumption of blood flow after the magnets were removed caused inflammation and oxidative damage that accelerated cell death. The smart bandage was used to collect data once a day for at least three days to track the progress of the wounds.

The smart bandage was able to detect changes in electrical resistance consistent with increased membrane permeability, a mark of a dying cell. Not surprisingly, one hour of pressure produced mild, reversible tissue damage while three hours of pressure produced more serious, permanent injury.

Promising future

“One of the things that makes this work novel is that we took a comprehensive approach to understanding how the technique could be used to observe developing wounds in complex tissue,” said Swisher. “In the past, people have used impedance spectroscopy for cell cultures or relatively simple measurements in tissue. What makes this unique is extending that to detect and extract useful information from wounds developing in the body. That’s a big leap.”

Maharbiz said the outlook for this and other smart bandage research is bright.

“As technology gets more and more miniaturized, and as we learn more and more about the responses the body has to disease and injury, we’re able to build bandages that are very intelligent,” he said. “You can imagine a future where the bandage you or a physician puts on could actually report a lot of interesting information that could be used to improve patient care.”

Other lead researchers on the project include Vivek Subramanian and Ana Claudia Arias, both faculty members in UC Berkeley’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences; and Shuvo Roy, a UCSF professor of bioengineering. Additional co-authors include Amy Liao and Monica Lin, both UC Berkeley Ph.D. students in bioengineering; and Yasser Khan, a UC Berkeley Ph.D. student in electrical engineering and computer sciences, who fabricated the sensor array.

Study co-author Dr. David Young, UCSF professor of surgery, is now heading up a clinical trial of this bandage.

The project is funded through the Flexible Resorbable Organic and Nanomaterial Therapeutic Systems (FRONTS) program of the National Science Foundation.

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Necklace and smartphone app can help people track food intake


UCLA-developed app could help battle obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

WearSens rests loosely above the sternum and uses highly sensitive sensors to capture vibrations from the action of swallowing.

By Bill Kisliuk, UCLA

A sophisticated necklace developed by researchers at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science can monitor food and drink intake, which could help wearers track and improve their dietary habits.

The inventors of the WearSens device say it could help battle obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other problems related to nutrition.

Majid Sarrafzadeh, a distinguished professor of computer science and co-director of UCLA’s Wireless Health Institute, led a team that created the device and an algorithm that translates data from the necklace, and tested it on 30 people who ate a variety of foods.

The researchers found that WearSens can differentiate between solids and liquids with 87 percent accuracy, between hot drinks and room-temperature drinks with 90 percent accuracy, and between food items with different textures with 80 percent accuracy. Researchers say those figures will improve as users calibrate the device based on their eating habits.

The research was published online by the IEEE Sensors Journal.

“Today, many people try to track their food intake with journals, but this is often not effective or convenient,” Sarrafzadeh said. “This technology allows individuals and health care professionals to monitor intake with greater accuracy and more immediacy.”

WearSens rests loosely above the sternum and uses highly sensitive piezoelectric sensors to capture vibrations from the action of swallowing. Piezoelectric sensors produce voltage based on the mechanical stress — or movement or pressure — that is applied to them.

When the wearer eats or drinks, skin and muscle motion from the lower trachea trigger the sensors, and the necklace transmits the signals to a smartphone, where the UCLA-developed algorithm converts the data into information about the food or beverage. The phone displays data about the volume of food or liquid consumed and can offer advice or analysis; for example, that the wearer is eating more than in previous days or that the person should drink more water.

With the WearSens device, the sensor information is translated using a spectrogram, which offers a visual representation of vibrations picked up by the sensors. Spectrograms are often used in speech therapy and seismology, among other applications.

“The breakthroughs are in the design of the necklace, which is simple and does not interfere with daily activity, and in identifying statistical measures that distinguish food intake based on spectrogram images generated from piezoelectric sensor signals,” said Nabil Alshurafa, a graduate student researcher at UCLA who is a co-inventor of the device and the first author of the research.

The study’s other authors are co-inventor Haik Kalantarian, a graduate student researcher; Shruti Sarin and Behnam Shahbazi, also graduate student researchers; Jason Liu, who was a UCLA graduate student at the time he worked on the research; and postdoctoral researcher Mohammad Pourhomayoun.

The team is continuing to refine the algorithms and the necklace’s design. The researchers hope WearSens will be available to the public later this year.

The technology is available for licensing via the UCLA Office of Intellectual Property and Industry-Sponsored Research, which facilitates the conversion of UCLA research to benefit the public.

The research was supported by the National Science Foundation.

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Pens filled with high-tech inks for do-it-yourself sensors


New simple tool is opening door to where anyone will be able to build sensors, anywhere.

By Ioana Patringenaru, UC San Diego

A new simple tool developed by nanoengineers at the University of California, San Diego, is opening the door to an era when anyone will be able to build sensors, anywhere, including physicians in the clinic, patients in their home and soldiers in the field.

The team from the University of California, San Diego, developed high-tech bio-inks that react with several chemicals, including glucose. They filled off-the-shelf ballpoint pens with the inks and were able to draw sensors to measure glucose directly on the skin and sensors to measure pollution on leaves.

Skin and leaves aren’t the only media on which the pens could be used. Researchers envision sensors drawn directly on smart phones for personalized and inexpensive health monitoring or on external building walls for monitoring of toxic gas pollutants. The sensors also could be used on the battlefield to detect explosives and nerve agents.

The team, led by Joseph Wang, the chairman of the Department of NanoEngineering at the University of California, San Diego, published their findings in the Feb. 26 issue of Advanced Healthcare Materials. Wang also directs the Center for Wearable Sensors at UC San Diego.

“Our new biocatalytic pen technology, based on novel enzymatic inks, holds considerable promise for a broad range of applications on site and in the field,” Wang said.

The biggest challenge the researchers faced was making inks from chemicals and biochemicals that aren’t harmful to humans or plants; could function as the sensors’ electrodes; and retain their properties over long periods in storage and in various conditions. Researchers turned to biocompatible polyethylene glycol, which is used in several drug delivery applications, as a binder. To make the inks conductive to electric current they used graphite powder. They also added chitosan, an antibacterial agent which is used in bandages to reduce bleeding, to make sure the ink adhered to any surfaces it was used on. The inks’ recipe also includes xylitol, a sugar substitute, which helps stabilize enzymes that react with several chemicals the do-it-yourself sensors are designed to monitor.

Reusable glucose sensors

Wang’s team has been investigating how to make glucose testing for diabetics easier for several years. The same team of engineers recently developed non-invasive glucose sensors in the form of temporary tattoos. In this study, they used pens, loaded with an ink that reacts to glucose, to draw reusable glucose-measuring sensors on a pattern printed on a transparent, flexible material which includes an electrode. Researchers then pricked a subject’s finger and put the blood sample on the sensor. The enzymatic ink reacted with glucose and the electrode recorded the measurement, which was transmitted to a glucose-measuring device. Researchers then wiped the pattern clean and drew on it again to take another measurement after the subject had eaten.

Researchers estimate that one pen contains enough ink to draw the equivalent of 500 high-fidelity glucose sensor strips. Nanoengineers also demonstrated that the sensors could be drawn directly on the skin and that they could communicate with a Bluetooth-enabled electronic device that controls electrodes called a potentiostat, to gather data.

Sensors for pollution and security

The pens would also allow users to draw sensors that detect pollutants and potentially harmful chemicals sensors on the spot. Researchers demonstrated that this was possible by drawing a sensor on a leaf with an ink loaded with enzymes that react with phenol, an industrial chemical, which can also be found in cosmetics, including sunscreen. The leaf was then dipped in a solution of water and phenol and the sensor was connected to a pollution detector. The sensors could be modified to react with many pollutants, including heavy metals or pesticides.

Next steps include connecting the sensors wirelessly to monitoring devices and investigating how the sensors perform in difficult conditions, including extreme temperatures, varying humidity and extended exposure to sunlight.

“Biocompatible Enzymatic Roller Pens for Direct Writing of Biocatalytic Materials: ‘Do-it-yourself’ Electrochemical Biosensors” is authored by Amay J. Bandodkar, Wenzhao Jia, Julian Ramirez and Wang.

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Eat.Think.Design: A public health course for the startup generation


UC Berkeley course feeds need for rethinking problems of food and nutrition.

By Tamara Straus, UC Berkeley

For the creators of the UC Berkeley course Eat.Think.Design, two things are certain.

First, the United States is facing a food and nutrition crisis, with rocketing rates of diabetes, hunger and health disparity.

Second, graduate students today — from fields as different as public health, business, information technology and engineering — want their education to be more hands-on, more interdisciplinary and more “impactful” to society at large.

In the case of the Eat.Think.Design course, they want to spend class time not just learning about food and nutrition problems, they want to devise actual food and nutrition solutions.

This may sound grand, but for the course’s three instructors — Jaspal Sandhu, a UC Berkeley lecturer in design and innovation; Nap Hosang, a longtime Kaiser Permanente medical doctor and UC Berkeley School of Public Health instructor; and Kristine Madsen, an associate professor in the Joint Medical Program and Public Health Nutrition at Cal’s School of Public Health — there is nothing grand or inappropriate about letting students attempt societal solutions while in graduate school.

“The reason we emphasize experiential learning is because it has proved to be more effective,” says Sandhu, who is also a partner at the Gobee Group, a consulting firm he runs with two other multilingual Fulbright scholars with UC Berkeley roots. Sandhu speaks Punjabi, Spanish, Mongolian and English, and prior to Gobee worked with the Mongolian Ministry of Health designing mobile health information systems.

Sandhu emphasizes that his students’ backgrounds demand more than lecturing. Among the 25 people enrolled in Eat.Think.Design this spring, many have relevant work experience. At least three have started their own companies, several have worked for big companies like IBM, Deloitte and Eli Lilly, and most have about five years under their belts working for government agencies or large nonprofits. “To keep the attention of such students,” says Sandhu, “we need to give them actual problems to focus on.”

Working in interdisciplinary teams of three under an instructor, Eat.Think.Design students spend the bulk of the semester on one project, conducting ethnographic and market research, investigating models and constantly devising and then revising potential solutions. Members of last year’s class, for example, streamlined SNAP federal nutrition benefits payments at San Francisco’s Heart of the City Farmer’s Market, worked with the Kossoye Development Program in Ethiopia on strategies to make home gardening more accessible and built a pilot program with Partners In Health: Navajo Nation to test a pop-up grocery store in areas that are one hour’s drive from fresh food. Although the project in the Navajo Nation helped COPE to receive a three-year, $3 million REACH grant from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention to pursue healthy eating programs in the vast American Indian territory — Hosang argues that the course is not designed to incubate social innovations per se.

“Our goal is to incubate innovative people — people who can be influencers in the public health sector,” he says.

Hosang, who has served as head of the interdisciplinary online MPH degree program for the past 15 years and executive director of the Interdisciplinary MPH degree program since 2010, is not subtle in his criticism of public health teaching.

“Most academics are in a silo,” he said, “and their silo has driven them more and more into their specialist thinking.”

Yet this specialist thinking, Hosang argues, is running counter to the view that public health is enmeshed in almost every field — from architecture and transportation, to product design and education.

“We need to change the way public health professionals approach problems,” said Hosang, “and we need them to be in touch with people from other disciplines to inform their problem-solving processes.”

Hosang and Sandhu started working on their public health course in October 2010, after Hosang read Sandhu’s dissertation on public health design research in rural Mongolia and was impressed by the combination of grassroots and trial-and-error learning. In the spring of 2011, they launched their course, with financial support from the Blum Center for Developing Economies, which seeds interdisciplinary, social impact courses on campus. Madsen joined the course in 2014 when the focus narrowed from designing innovative public health solutions to designing innovative food solutions. In a forthcoming article in the American Journal of Public Health titled “Solutions That Stick: Activating Cross-Disciplinary Collaboration in a Graduate-Level Public Health Innovations Course at the University of California,” the three instructors describe how their approach is part of a much-needed pedagogical shift. They write:

A Lancet Commission, convened to discuss the education of health professionals in the 21st century, argued that educational transformation is critical to meet the public health problems we face in this century. Specifically, the commission called for a higher level of learning, moving beyond informative learning, which transmits knowledge to create experts, to transformative learning, which transmits leadership attributes to create agents who can successfully implement change.”

Sandhu explained that when he and Hosang came up with the idea for the course, not only was this “change agent” approach novel but no one was applying design thinking or human-centered design approaches at the School of Public Health at UC Berkeley. (He describes those approaches as ones that enable teams to systematically develop novel, effective solutions to complex problems.) Yet Sandhu says it is clear there’s a demand for this kind of problem solving.

Sandhu’s proof is the continual over-enrollment in and rave reviews of his course. This year, 60 students applied for 25 spots. And for the past four years, 40 percent of students indicated it was the “best course” they took at UC Berkeley, with the other 40 percent stating it was in the “top 10 percent” and the rest saying it was in the “top 25 percent.”

Christine Hamann, an M.B.A./M.P.H. candidate who took Eat.Think.Design in 2014, confirmed that “the teaching team is phenomenal — both in terms of the academic leadership and the mentoring of graduate students.”

She also confirmed that she and her fellow students want “practical challenges in graduate school,” adding, “we are tired of theory.”

Hamann is one of the many students who has brought past work into the classroom. Before grad school, she worked for seven years at Partners In Health, most recently on the nonprofit’s COPE Project in the Navajo Nation. She said the course forced her to look at Navajo Nation residents’ consumer needs around food and nutrition — and to see food less as a supply issue and more of a demand issue.

“Traditional public health approaches focus on supply, but that is why you see programs that don’t meet the needs of the community,” she said.

Hamann and the three other graduate students opted not to focus on the best truck routes to bring fresh produce into the 27,000 square mile territory — and instead focused on seeing what citizens there want to consume and what can last in what is a food (and actual) desert. During the summer of 2014, with funding from the Blum Center, Hamann created pop-up grocery stores in Navajo, to determine which food items were most in demand and could help reduce chronic diseases like diabetes, which affects 20 percent of residents. This exploration helped lead to the aforementioned $3 million CDC grant for COPE.

As to why so many Cal students are so focused on food and nutrition, Hamann has this to say: “From a public health perspective, I think we’re seeing the ramifications of the American diet play out in really scary chronic disease indicators.” She also noted that there is a general heightened awareness of food systems — “of where food is coming from, the corporations that own it, and the detrimental effects those relationships can have on both health outcomes and business models.” Third, Hamann said a growing number of students want to see tech innovation applied to less wealthy and less urban populations—“the people,” she said, “who need it.”

Then, there are the galling statistics: Americans throw out an estimated 40 percent of food grown per year. An estimated 50 million Americans do not have access to enough food. As of 2012, about half of all adults — 117 million people — have one or more chronic health conditions, such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, obesity and arthritis. And childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years.

Sandhu is aware that a course on food innovation is well timed at UC Berkeley. In 2013, UC Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources, the Goldman School of Public Policy, the Graduate School of Journalism, Berkeley Law and the School of Public Health joined forces to create the Berkeley Food Institute to improve food systems locally and globally. A year later, UC President Janet Napolitano launched the UC Global Food Initiative — to prompt all 10 campuses, UC’s Division of Agricultural and Natural Resources, Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, and a consortium of faculty, researchers and students to address food security, nutrition and sustainability issues. Even BigIdeas@Berkeley, the annual student innovation prize, has a contest category on food systems innovation.

“Our timing is either well forecasted or extremely lucky,” said Sandhu.

Eat.Think.Design may be a popular course — and may inspire copycats — but both students and instructors are quick to point out that the course cannot serve as a model for every graduate-level class.

“It is difficult to take more than one experiential class per semester,” said Hamann. “The time commitment with fellow students and with our client is just too big.”

Amy Regan, who took the course in 2013 and now works with the San Francisco Unified School District’s Future Dining Experience program, agrees that “compromising and agreeing on the best approach among a group takes time.”

For instructors, professor Madsen estimates the course requires one and a half to two times more time than an average School of Public Health offering, because she, Sandhu and Hosang each mentor three student groups during and after class time. The three instructors also spend time cultivating their connections to bring in student projects from nonprofits and government agencies. During the class on Feb. 4, 16 pitches were made by representatives of various organizations, including California Farm to Fork, San Quentin State Prison and Project Open Hand.

“Much more work goes into creating the class because of all the connections to be made,” said Madsen.

And very little is scripted. This gives the course the feeling of a kind of pedagogical startup, exciting but uncertain. Madsen said this atmosphere comes with a distinct disadvantage for professors.

“You have to admit you don’t know as much,” she said. “If your identity is wrapped up in being an academic expert, this won’t work; you’ll always default to the more narrow but comfortable path.”

For Sandhu and Hosang, who are adjuncts, there is less face to lose.

“I think over the last seven years, since the start of the Great Recession, there’s been a transformative energy happening in higher education,” said Hosang. “It’s coming from the younger generation who see the world has changed and who no longer see college as a ticket to success. That’s where this move toward an interdisciplinary, hands-on approach is coming from.”

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Wearable electronics device makes it easier to image infants


Flexible, lightweight and wearable electronics strategy has led to plans for clinical trials.

New wearable electronics will allow an infant to be swaddled in a blanket laced with a network of nearly weightless, printed “coils” for more comfortable, less expensive MRI scanning.

By Wallace Ravven

An infant born three months prematurely fails to flush pink at birth and has an alarmingly low blood pressure. Ultrasound identifies a heart abnormality and doctors rush the newborn to an MRI suite to confirm the diagnosis. But the scanning itself can cause physical agitation that interferes with clear imaging. In some cases, it can make it harder for the baby to breathe.

When scans require high sensitivity on a small area of the body, a hard, heavy vest of metal coils must press down on the baby. The bulky burden weighs more than the newborn. Infants squirm under the pressure, but anesthesia to calm them down adds an unwanted risk. Lightening the load by securing the weighty apparatus off the baby leads to degraded resolution, prompting a need for longer MRI exposures.

The hardware is part of the radio frequency (RF) coil assembly that receives the MRI’s electromagnetic signals. Besides being awkward and heavy, the coils are expensive to manufacture and must be reused for years. Sanitizing the bulky assembly is difficult.

Cut to a faculty lunch in 2011. UC Berkeley MRI expert Miki Lustig hears his colleague Ana Claudia Arias describe her lab’s progress adapting a technique similar to conventional ink jet printing to fabricate electronic devices.

It was a technology, Lustig says, that was “well beyond my comfort zone.” But he wondered if Arias’ printable electronics techniques could fabricate ultra-lightweight, “two-dimensional” RF coils to ease the trauma to tiny tots and improve image quality.

Lustig and Arias, both faculty members in the electrical engineering and computer sciences department, walked back to their offices together.

“I asked her if she thought RF coils could be printed. It just seemed like a good idea. She said ‘let me think about it.’ A few days later — almost immediately — she said we should give it a try. She started ordering materials to test different substrates and putting a team together.”

Printing electronic circuits and devices based on metals and semiconductors from solution is a very young field that Arias first entered in 2003 at the near-legendary Xerox PARC in Palo Alto. She came to PARC from Plastic Logic Limited, where she worked after finishing her Ph.D. in physics at the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University, U.K.

While at Xerox, Arias began to explore fabrication of wearable sensors. Her group developed several components of a flexible sensor that targeted the prevention of brain injuries by monitoring pressure, acoustic and light levels in the battlefield.

When she joined the Berkeley EECS faculty in 2011, she began to expand her collaborations to developed wearable medical devices that could track vital signs and give doctors feedback on their patients health.

“Printed electronics is an ideal technology for fabrication and integration of devices with different functionality, such as sensors, light sources and simple circuits. It is ideal for deposition of unique and customized designs. And when one adds flexible substrates to the equation you could start thinking about truly wearable — and comfortable — electronics”

To make “wearable electronics” for infant MRI patients, her team first tried to print directly onto cloth fabric.

“We wanted to make our coil feel like a swaddle blankie that fits snugly and softly around the babies,” she says.

But the cloth’s texture interfered with the ability to print high-quality capacitors, so the team turned to printing the “electronic inks” layer by layer onto plastic thin film, like what is used in photo transparencies. The lab succeeded in fabricating and demonstrating functioning RF coils with performance properties comparable to conventional RF coils.

Arias is supported by a Bakar Fellowship at Berkeley, support intended to help commercially promising research make the leap from the lab to the real world. She and Lustig plan to start a company to advance the technology into clinical use.

“We, researchers, don’t usually have experience and training with steps such as securing IP protection and developing a business plan to attract investment and ensure success. Mentors we met through the Bakar Program have been very helpful,” she says.

Their proof-in-principle of the flexible, lightweight and wearable electronics strategy has led to plans for clinical trials early next year. She and Lustig are collaborating with pediatrician Shreyas Vasanawala at Lucile Packard Children’s hospital to test the wearable RF coils on babies needing MRI scans. Vasanawala has been a key clinical consultant to the project from the beginning.

Arias sees the technology’s potential for adult MRI scanning as well — helping to make the MRI experience more comfortable and less scary to everyone, while getting better images of parts of the body that the bulky conventional RF coil assemblies don’t fit very well.

Meanwhile, she still has her eyes on developing that electronic blankie. “When you see kids in the hospital, it’s scary for them. When they’re in a blanket, it’s a much more comforting experience. We want to swaddle them.”

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Health Data Exploration project announces Agile Research Project awards


Recipients selected for capacity to advance use of personal health data for research.

By Tiffany Fox, UC San Diego

The Health Data Exploration project – based at the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2) and supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) – has announced five recipients in its $200,000 Agile Research Project competition. The recipients, selected for their capacity to advance the use of aggregated and anonymous personal health data for research, are:

  • Rumi Chunara, New York University, “Keeping Pace: Dynamic Assessment of Environment and Exercise Using Personal Health Data,” $50,000
  • Julie Kientz, University of Washington, “When Am I At My Best? Passive Sensing of Circadian Rhythms for Individualized Models of Cognitive Performance,” $36,772
  • Emil Chiauzzi, PatientsLikeMe (company), “From Self-Monitoring to Self-Experimentation: Behavior Change in Patients with MS,” $37,700
  • Michelle De Mooy, Center for Democracy and Technology (non-profit), “Towards Privacy-Aware Research and Development in Wearable Health,” $50,000
  • Eric B. Hekler, Arizona State University, “Exploring Strategies to Improve Acceptability and Usability of a Just In Time Adaptive Intervention via Incorporation of Proximity Sensors and a Smartwatch,” $25,528

The Agile Research Project grants were created to encourage collaboration among members of the Health Data Exploration (HDE) Network, and to generate new training and learning opportunities for the field. Established in June 2014 with a $1.9 million grant from RWJF, the Network brings together companies, researchers and other partners to strategize, coordinate and experiment with ways to use personal health data for the public good.

“We were delighted at the response to our call for proposals, and very pleased to see these projects emerge as the ones selected,” said Dr. Kevin Patrick, principal investigator of the HDE project. “These hold great promise to move the field of personal health data research forward. Taken together these projects are exploring how to leverage anonymous and aggregated data from companies like Fitbit, Jawbone and RunKeeper in ways that improve our understanding of health.”

Chunara’s project, for example, will develop a platform for users of RunKeeper devices to provide their data, which will then be used to better understand the relationship between the built environment and how types and amounts of exercise vary over time.

De Mooy will work with Fitbit to explore how companies can integrate responsible privacy practices into their internal research to protect users’ privacy while improving products and fitness results for customers. As the market leader in connected health and fitness, Fitbit has always been committed to protecting consumer privacy and keeping data safe, and only reviews anonymous, aggregated data for research purposes.

Hekler’s project will explore how new and emerging technologies, particularly the smartwatch and home-based sensors, can be used to provide highly personalized and context-appropriate support for being physically active, including marking times when a person will not want to be disturbed.

The HDE leadership adopted an “agile development approach” for the competition, encouraging participants to conduct applied research projects on personal health data within a short time frame (two to six months). The participants are expected to use a timely and efficient methodology (in terms of program scoping, solicitation, peer review, contractual negotiations) that matches the pace of industry. The winning projects also leverage collaborations with one or more other members of the growing HDE Network of researchers and companies in the personal health data arena.

”We see a tremendous opportunity for personal health data to improve our understanding of the connections between community environments, individual behavior and health,” said Lori Melichar from RWJF. “We expect that the Agile Research Projects from this first round of funding will help us better understand how to use data in a practical and meaningful way in our efforts to build a national Culture of Health.”

The HDE project, and its associated Network, is supported by Calit2, which is based at both UC San Diego (where it is known as the Qualcomm Institute) and UC Irvine. Last year, HDE issued a report titled Personal Data for the Public Good, which found that many people who track health-related data are interested in sharing that data with researchers in medical and public health — provided adequate privacy controls exist.

The HDE Network brings together companies that collect and store personal health data, captured through the use of wearable devices, smartphone apps and social media, with researchers who mine the data for patterns and trends and other strategic partners. Through a set of research projects using personal health data, the Network will identify policies and best practices for using these new forms of data to produce transformative knowledge about health.

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A gamechanger for pediatric diabetes


UC Santa Barbara scientists are developing a pediatric artificial pancreas.

UC Santa Barbara chemical engineers Frank Doyle (left) and Eyal Dassau with a model of their artificial pancreas for adults.

By Sonia Fernandez, UC Santa Barbara

Anyone who lives with Type 1 diabetes is all too familiar with the sheer amount of effort — and often round-the-clock attention — required to manage the disease. Food intake is closely monitored, as is physical activity, and the period between meals is carefully tracked in order to calculate appropriate insulin dosages, which have to be delivered at the right time.

All this to keep blood glucose levels within a healthy range.

For parents of children with Type 1 diabetes, the stress is amplified. Children’s unpredictable eating habits and food preferences, spontaneous physical activity and sensitivity to insulin require parents to be extra vigilant. The dreaded overnight hypoglycemia — a condition in which glucose levels drop to dangerously low levels between dinner and breakfast — requires parents to interrupt their own sleep habits so they can check their children’s blood sugar and give the child a snack if needed. Conversely, if the glucose reading is too high, they would need to administer insulin. And those eagerly anticipated birthday parties (complete with cake and ice cream), sleepovers and playdates? Only if the other parents involved can be trusted to monitor the child closely and respond to emergencies.

But with a $1.8-million, three-year grant from the National Institutes of Health, UC Santa Barbara chemical engineers Frank Doyle and Eyal Dassau and Yale University’s Dr. Stuart Weinzimer could make such hands-on care a thing of the past. And it could happen within a decade. The researchers and their teams are embarking on the development of artificial pancreas (AP) for children. The grant is the UC Santa Barbara researchers’ first award for a pediatric closed-loop study.

“I think one of the most important things we can do is alleviate parents’ fears of overnight hypoglycemia,” said Dassau, a research engineer in UC Santa Barbara’s Department of Chemical Engineering and the principal investigator on this study. “As a result, parents can get a full night’s sleep without having to worry what might happen at 4 a.m., or who’s awake to check their child’s glucose. That would be a big success.”

Over the past 12 years, Doyle, director of the Institute for Collaborative Biotechnologies at UC Santa Barbara, and his research group have developed the artificial pancreas, a combination of sensor technology and insulin pump, which, thanks to a control algorithm, reads levels of glucose and injects the appropriate amount of insulin based on the data, and the patient’s individual characteristics.

Thus far, the researchers have made great strides in developing UCSB’s AP for use in adults. In a collaboration with the William Sansum Diabetes Research Center in Santa Barbara, and in local and international clinical trials, the AP’s multinational team of researchers has been refining the device based on input from engineering, clinical and behavioral aspects of diabetes management.

Tailoring the device to manage pediatric diabetes, however, requires the researchers to consider an additional set of factors.

“Children have unpredictable eating habits,” said Dassau. “You can put a certain amount of food in front of them, but you don’t know whether they’re going to eat it all.” Additionally, they may graze throughout the day, and tend to be more spontaneous than adults with their physical activity. Also coming into play are the children’s general lack of awareness about their condition and their limited ability to inform parents and caregivers of any immediate health situations.

The protocols for diabetes management vary by age as well. With adults and teenagers who can predict their meals and mealtimes, insulin can be delivered subcutaneously about 15 minutes before eating to ensure an adequate amount of the hormone has reached the bloodstream by the time they eat. This “pre-meal bolus” is an ideal way to manage meal glucose control, as it allows insulin to be absorbed when the glucose surge arrives with the meal, and mimics as closely as possible the way a healthy individual’s body regulates blood sugar.

However, in younger children with Type 1 diabetes, because of unpredictable eating habits and higher sensitivity to insulin, the hormone must be delivered after the meal, which creates both a delay and the chance of a swing to the hypoglycemic extreme of the blood sugar range, due to the tendency to overcompensate.

According to the researchers, the first phase of research for the pediatric AP involves data collection. With clinical expertise from Weinzimer, a pediatric endocrinologist, professor at Yale School of Medicine and a leading expert on Type 1 diabetes in children, the researchers will tune the AP’s Zone MPC (model predictive control) algorithm to meet the specific challenges of managing pediatric diabetes.

“I would look for the following things in a pediatric version of an AP: safety above all; efficacy; reliability; and ease of use,” said Weinzimer. In addition to protecting against constant wild swings in blood sugar, which would in turn alleviate the high rates of anxiety, depression and burnout in parents, and prevent the additional problem of disrupted psychosocial development in children with Type 1 diabetes, he said. The device itself must perform in a predictable manner and not be overly complicated or burdensome to use.

“One of the things I appreciate most about Drs. Doyle and Dassau is that they are, above all, scientists. They are extremely knowledgeable about control systems for the artificial pancreas, world experts in fact, and they approach this field with scientific rigor and balance,” Weinzimer continued. “We have to be very careful as investigators not to minimize the potential risks and shortcomings in our systems as we test them. We have a moral duty to protect our patients. I firmly believe that these systems will be transformative in diabetes care, but we should not lose our scientific objectivity and skepticism. Frank and Eyal have always struck me as very balanced and circumspect in how they approach this field, and I am looking forward to working with them.”

“We’ve already proved in previous clinical trials that our medically inspired artificial pancreas design can handle unannounced meals and physical activity,” said Dassau, adding that bringing this design to the younger population of Type I diabetes patients would ease the burden on parents who worry about the extra cookie or surprise sugary treat. “We’ve already developed safety algorithms for hypo- and hyperglycemia that can be adjusted for young children.”

Because insulin requirements change as the child gets older, the algorithm will be adjusted and refined according to different age groups, the researchers noted.

The second phase of the project involves developing and in-clinic testing of an advisory system and an alert system for parents that both provides insight on strategies for the management of their children’s conditions in general, and informs them of impending hypo- or hyperglycemia.

At every phase, the researchers will conduct repeated evaluations and refinements to the algorithm as well as to the alert and advisory systems. The goal is to give parents and children the ability to be involved in the management of diabetes to the extent that they can be, while safeguarding against extremes when unexpected circumstances arise. Snacking, unscheduled naps, spur-of-the-moment activities or missed meals will no longer result in increased stress levels for both parents and children.

According to Doyle, who holds the Mellichamp Chair in Process Control at UC Santa Barbara, when his group started work on the artificial pancreas over a decade ago, the researchers found that subjects using the conventional multiple daily injection method of controlling blood sugar were able to keep their glucose level in a safe range for only slightly over 50 percent of the time.

“In our most recent trials, we have demonstrated that our algorithms can keep subjects in a safe range for 80 percent or more of the time,” he said. The UC Santa Barbara AP’s Health Monitoring System sends user alerts in the form of messages and audible signals when problems arise, such as blood sugars that are trending low. Additionally, Doyle’s AP researchers have two other active grants funding research to examine how the device can monitor its own operations and alert users to potential malfunctions.

In future studies, pediatric AP testing will move to an outpatient component, in which subjects are given free rein over what they eat and do, but at locations near the clinic, with supervision from technical staff.

“But the home is where we want to get,” said Doyle, “with the normal routine, with no interference or intrusion. The true end-game is at home.”

Research for the development of this artificial pancreas is supported by the National Institutes of Health, award number DP3DK104057.

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Restoring touch to amputees


DARPA taps Livermore Lab to enable naturalistic feeling, movements in prosthetic hands.

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory engineer Sat Pannu and his Neural Tech Group research team are developing wireless electronic packages for HAPTIX called smart packages. These packages would contain electronics that record and stimulate the peripheral nervous system to control movement and sensation in a patient’s prosthetic hand. (Photo by Julie Russell, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory)

By Kenneth Ma, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) recently selected Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) to join a collaborative research team that intends to build the world’s first neural system to enable naturalistic feeling and movements in prosthetic hands.

Known as Hand Proprioception and Touch Interfaces (HAPTIX), the program seeks to provide wounded service members with dexterous control over advanced prosthetic devices that substitute for amputated hands. If successful, HAPTIX intends to give patients the psychological benefit of having natural sensation in their prosthetic hands and reduction of “phantom limb” pain, a sensation some amputees can feel despite the removal of a limb.

Lawrence Livermore’s Neural Tech Group and their collaborators (Case Western Reserve University and the Louis Stokes Cleveland Veterans Administration Medical Center) intend to develop neural interface systems that measure and decode motor signals recorded in peripheral nerves and muscles in the forearm by using tiny electrodes.

“The HAPTIX project intends to achieve a phenomenal breakthrough in prosthetics never thought possible,” LLNL’s project leader Sat Pannu said. “Its neural system intends to re-create a range of functions, including a real feeling of touch when holding another person’s hand.”

For these neural interface systems, LLNL intends to further develop the advanced prosthetic limb systems developed under DARPA’s Revolutionizing Prosthetics and Reliable Neural-Interface Technology (RE-NET) programs, which has made major steps forward in providing a direct and powerful link between user intent and prosthesis control.

The HAPTIX program intends to incorporate sensors that provide tactile and proprioceptive feedback to the patient from their hands, delivered through a patterned stimulation of sensory pathways in peripheral nerves.

The Revolutionizing Prosthetics and RE-NET programs, combined with the neural interface systems, intends to allow users to control prosthetic hand movements with their thoughts and have natural sensations. That means the bionic hand would be able to perform movements of a human hand and experience pressure, touch and texture.

One of HAPTIX’s key challenges is identifying stimulation patterning strategies that elicit naturalistic sensations of touch and movement. The ultimate goal is to create a fully implantable device that is safe, reliable, effective and approved for human use.

Pannu and his team of engineers are developing wireless electronic packages for HAPTIX called smart packages. These packages would contain electronics that record and stimulate the peripheral nervous system to control movement and sensation in a patient’s prosthetic hand.

Smart packages intend to be designed to miniaturize electronics normally the size of a third of a cell phone into a package the size of a watch battery. The electronics would be made of ceramics and titanium, biocompatible materials that would seal the package tightly, preventing components from leaking into nerves or human tissue from entering the package.

“The packages have to be really small, so they don’t put any weight or pressure on the nerves,” said Pannu, adding that the smart packages need to bond with the electrodes to function. “We don’t want to damage the nerves.”

The Neural Tech Group also is collaborating with Medtronic and Ardiem Medical. Some collaborators plan to develop the electrode arrays for sensation and muscle control, while others aim to validate and characterize it.

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Genomics initiative launch draws enthusiastic industry, academic partners


UC Berkeley-UCSF partnership will apply new gene-editing techniques to improve health.

By Robert Sanders, UC Berkeley

Several hundred guests crowded the lobby of the Li Ka Shing Center for Biomedical and Health Sciences Wednesday night (Feb. 4) as the campus celebrated the launch of the Innovative Genomics Initiative (IGI), a partnership between UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco researchers and the biopharmaceutical industry to perfect new gene-editing techniques and apply them to drug development and global health in general.

Among the attendees were a representative from the Li Ka Shing Foundation, which was an early lead supporter of IGI, as well as representatives from two pharmaceutical companies – AstraZeneca and Agilent – that have signed agreements to partner with IGI to use the CRISPR/Cas9 technology to better understand diseases and speed the development of new drugs to treat them.

“The science is cool, but the kind of collaborative structure we have is cool as well,” said Lorenz Mayr, vice president for reagents and assay development at AstraZeneca.

IGI, located in the Li Ka Shing Center for Genomic Engineering, was formed after Berkeley biochemist Jennifer Doudna and her colleagues discovered precision “DNA scissors,” a complex of RNA and protein called CRISPR/Cas9, that can snip DNA at very specific targets in a the genome, allowing scientists to cut out or edit defective genes, or add new genes. Doudna, a professor of molecular and cellular biology and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, hopes that IGI will make the Bay Area, with its wealth of scientific and clinical research and its business, technology and investment innovation, a global hub for development and application of the groundbreaking technology.

“The Bay Area offers a unique combination of world-leading academic research facilities and clinical institutions with a vibrant and innovative biotech sector,” said Doudna, who cofounded IGI with Jonathan Weissman, a UCSF professor of cellular and molecular pharmacology and HHMI investigator. “There is no better place in the world to spark innovation and discovery in the field of genomics.”

The technology is already being explored by IGI collaborator Jennifer Puck, medical director of the UCSF Clinical and Translational Science Institute’s Pediatric Clinical Research Center, as a possible way to treat severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), often called the “Bubble Boy” disease. Puck’s work has focused on the genetic cause of SCID and the development of gene-targeted therapies for SCID.

Other scientists around the globe are applying CRISPR/Cas9 to understand and explore new treatments for diabetes, HIV/AIDS, blood cancers and rare genetic diseases like Huntington’s.

“Professor Jennifer Doudna’s groundbreaking scientific work and her launch of the Innovative Genomics Initiative are emblematic of all that we strive for in our research endeavors at Berkeley,” UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks said in a statement. “With its enormous potential to dramatically improve the health and well-being of people around the world, the IGI is another wonderful example of how this university’s research enterprise contributes to the greater good.”

AstraZeneca, IGI’s first partner, plans to use CRISPR/Cas9 to identify and validate gene targets relevant to cancer; cardiovascular, metabolic, respiratory, autoimmune and inflammatory diseases; and regenerative medicine to understand their precise roles in these conditions.

“We are excited to pair the IGI’s premier expertise in CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing and regulation with AstraZeneca’s deep experience in therapeutics,” said Jacob Corn, IGI’s scientific director. “I’m confident that, in working side-by-side with scientists at AstraZeneca, our collaboration will positively impact drug discovery and development to hasten treatments to patients.”

For more on IGI’s new partnerships, link to IGI’s website and AstraZeneca’s press release.

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1,000th solar suitcase is beacon in developing world


This innovation out of UC Berkeley has saved lives in places where light, power unreliable.

In 2008, an idea for bringing solar-powered light and electricity to energy-starved sub-Saharan Africa was burning brightly in Laura Stachel’s mind.

Stachel, an obstetrician turned public health graduate student at UC Berkeley, was appalled at conditions she saw at a maternity ward in a hospital in northern Nigeria. Frequent power outages meant emergency patient care was delayed, disrupted, or just impossible.

Stachel and her husband, solar energy educator Hal Aronson, devised the solar suitcase — delivering power and light from a most reliable source, the sun. The Blum Center for Developing Economies, at UC Berkeley, helped bring We Care Solar to life. Now, the nonprofit has shipped its 1,000th solar suitcase to provide electricity to health clinics trying to recover from the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone.

Read more on the Blum Center’s site

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