Pitt | Swanson Engineering
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Jan

Jan
16
2018

Students Address Posture in Parkinson’s

Bioengineering, MEMS, Student Profiles

PITTSBURGH (January 16, 2018) … Many of us have been told to stand up straight but may take for granted the ability to easily correct our posture. For those with Parkinson’s disease, postural awareness can diminish, and they often struggle with this characteristic slouched symptom. A group of Swanson School of Engineering students took a stance and addressed this medical issue with a device that promotes good posture, and were recognized for their innovation at the School’s biannual Design Expo. Posture Protect was created by bioengineering juniors, Tyler Bray and Jake Meadows; bioengineering senior, Raj Madhani; mechanical engineering senior, Benji Pollock; and mechanical engineering junior, Gretchen Sun. The poor posture experienced by individuals with Parkinson’s disease can limit mobility, impact gait, affect balance, and cause neck or back pain,” Meadows explained. “All of these symptoms combine to ultimately decrease independence, lower confidence, and negatively impact their quality of life by exacerbating existing challenges.” According to the team, Posture Protect is an easy-to-use, supportive posture quality detection and alert system that provides tactile feedback when bad posture persists. “The device increases postural awareness by determining the position of the user’s thoracic spine using three different sensors; when poor posture persists, vibrating motors provide gentle tactile feedback to notify the user of their change in posture,” Meadows said. Components of Posture Protect. The team performed extensive user outreach and testing, culminating in feedback from more than 60 individuals with Parkinson’s disease that indicated a need for such a device. Madhani said, “Our research found that of the people with Parkinson’s interviewed, 95 percent struggled with posture on a daily basis, and 90 percent of those people could correct their posture if they were reminded.” To further refine their device, the students took their testing to a local boxing club, Fit4Boxing, that offers strength training classes for individuals with Parkinson’s disease. “We visited the gym six times and tested five different iterations of our design, making modifications each time based on feedback received and data collected,” said Bray. With results in hand, the team presented Posture Protect at the Swanson School of Engineering Fall 2017 Design Expo, where they took first place in the “Art of Making” category and won “Best Overall Project.” The group intends to continue work on the project. “We plan to engage in longer-term user testing, incorporate Bluetooth into the device for setting customization, and code a smartphone application for posture tracking,” said Meadows. “Ultimately, the project's goal is to help patients stand straight and stand proud in the face of Parkinson’s disease.” ###

Jan
11
2018

Undergraduate Bioengineering Alumna Turns Senior Design Project Into a Business

Bioengineering

PITTSBURGH (January 11, 2018) … For undergraduates in the Swanson School of Engineering looking for a seamless transition into the “real world”, the opportunity to turn an idea into innovation and even a start-up can be a stitch in time. Lia Winter received a BS in bioengineering at Pitt in April 2017 and has since used her entrepreneurial spirit to start a business from a project whipped together in her undergraduate Senior Design class. Winter developed EasyWhip, an orthopedic surgical device that improves the whip stitching process during reconstructive procedures, like ACL surgery. “In these procedures, tendons are harvested from another part of the body and surgeons use a graft preparation station along with a whip stitching needle attached to a length of suture to construct a replacement graft for the injured ligament,” Winter explains. During her summer internship at an orthopedics medical device company, Winter saw an opportunity for improvement in the system. “I was inspired to create EasyWhip when I realized that there was an unmet medical need to make the whip stitching process easier,” Winter said. “EasyWhip is a modification to the conventional system that allows surgeons to recreate the same stitching pattern both faster and more consistently.” She worked closely with the Swanson Center for Product Innovation to create a highly functional prototype, and was awarded 3rd place at the Swanson School of Engineering Fall 2016 Design Expo. Winter took this winning project with her as she matriculated at the Dual MBA/MS Biomedical Engineering program at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK) and entered it into VolCourt, a 90-second elevator pitch competition. She was awarded first place and received $1,500, office space in the University of Tennessee Research Foundation Business Incubator, and several services to help her start a business. With the resources received from VolCourt, Winter started a sole proprietorship and filed a provisional patent application. She formulated a full business plan and was encouraged to present her idea at another pitch competition: UTK’s Boyd Venture Challenge. The Boyd Venture Challenge awards up to $20,000 in seed funding to student-owned businesses. Each participant gives a 25-minute presentation on the various elements of their business plan. Winter said, “I explained the problem at hand, detailed my innovation, gave a market estimate, illustrated my business model, presented a pro-forma budget, and projected financial statements for three years.” She was one of two student startups awarded $12,500 and plans to pursue a full patent and potentially license her product to a medical device company. Winter gives credit to Pitt for serving as a solid foundation in her biomedical engineering career. She said, “After completing a summer internship in industry and taking Senior Design, I realized that I am passionate about helping solve unmet medical needs.” Winter was awarded the Ergen Fellowship at UTK, which provided her with a scholarship and graduate research assistantship in the Department of Management. She said, “I plan to combine my biomedical engineering skills with business skills to help efficiently bring new innovative medical products to market.” She also encourages current bioengineering undergraduate students to stick with their Senior Design projects. Winter said, “A lot of these projects are actually great ideas that, with the right motivation and resources, you could use to start a business.” ###

Jan
8
2018

Uncovering the Power of Glial Cells

Bioengineering

PITTSBURGH (January 8, 2018) … Implanted devices send targeted electrical stimulation to the nervous system to interfere with abnormal brain activity, and it is commonly assumed that neurons are the only important brain cells that need to be stimulated by these devices. However, research published in Nature Biomedical Engineering reveals that it may also be important to target the supportive glial cells surrounding the neurons. The collaboration was led by Erin Purcell, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Michigan State University; Joseph W. Salatino, Purcell’s graduate student researcher; Kip A. Ludwig, associate director of technology at Mayo Clinic; and Takashi Kozai, assistant professor of bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering. “Glial cells are the most abundant in the central nervous system and critical to the function of the neuronal network,” Kozai says. “The most obvious function of glial cells has been related to their role in forming scar tissue to prevent the spread of injury and neuronal degeneration, but so much about their role in the brain is unknown.” The study, “Glial responses to implanted electrodes in the brain” (doi:10.1038/s41551-017-0154-1)  suggests that these glial cells are more functional than previously thought. “From providing growth factor support and ensuring proper oxygen and nutrient delivery to the brain to trimming of obsolete synapses and recycling waste products, recent findings show that glial cells do much more to ensure brain activity is optimized,” Kozai says. The slow, dim signals of glial cells are much more difficult to detect than the vibrant electrical activity of neurons. New advancements in technology allows researchers like Kozai to detect the subtleties of glial cell activity, and these observations are shedding new light on current issues plaguing implant devices and the treatment of neurological disease. Kozai explains, “Dysfunction in glial cells has been implicated as a cause and/or major contributor to an increasing number of neurological and developmental diseases. Therefore, it stands to reason that targeting these glial cells (in lieu of or in combination with neurons) may dramatically improve current treatments.” Kozai leads the Bionic Lab at Pitt, where researchers are investigating the biological tissue response to implantable technologies. Although there have been many advancements in neural implant technology in recent years, their underlying effects and reasons for their failure still puzzle scientists. By using advanced microscopy techniques, researchers can create more detailed neurological maps and imaging. “By combining in vivo multiphoton microscopy and in vivo electrophysiology, our lab is better able to visualize how cells move and change over time in the living brain and explain how changes in these glial cells alter the visually evoked neural network activity,” says Kozai. “Using this approach to better understand these cells can help guide implant design and success.” Kozai’s lab is currently working with Franca Cambi, professor of neurology at Pitt, on a project to understand the role of another type of glial cell on brain injury and neuronal activity. “Oligodendrocyte Progenitor Cells,” or OPCs, are progenitor cells—similar to stem cells—that have the capacity to differentiate during tissue repair. “Although OPCs have been understudied in brain-computer interface, they form direct synapses with neurons and are critical to their repair,” explains Kozai. “As progenitor cells, they have the capacity to differentiate into a variety of cells, including neurons. The technology is advancing to the point in which we can have a much better understanding of how the brain works comprehensively, rather than just focusing on neurons because their electrical signals make them appear brighter when imaging the brain.”Kozai believes that it is a pivotal time to investigate these cells and recognizes Dr. Ben Barres, an acclaimed neuroscientist at Stanford University, who made crucial discoveries in glial cell research. Kozai said, “We lost a great scientist and pioneer in this field of neuroscience. Professor Ben Barres really uncovered the importance of these glial cells on brain injuries and diseases. We have to keep pushing to see how we can improve current treatment by fixing these under-appreciated brain cells.” ### Photo above: During normal physiology, glial cells  (microglia, astrocytes, and NG2+ oligodendrocyte progenitor cells) maintain bidirectional communication with neurons and provide nutrient and regulatory support to the neural network. After the insertion of neural interfaces, glial cells react by extension of processes and migration towards the site injury, which prohibits them from maintaining their important regulatory roles. Targeting these glial cells and reestablishing their regulatory roles may provide therapeutic treatments for other brain disease and injuries. (Illustration by Steven L Wellman/BionicLab.ORG)