Pitt | Swanson Engineering

The Department of Bioengineering combines hands-on experience with the solid fundamentals that students need to advance themselves in research, medicine, and industry. The Department has a long-standing and unique relationship with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and other academic departments at the University of Pittsburgh as well as neighboring Carnegie Mellon University. Our faculty are shared with these organizations, offering our graduate and undergraduate students access to state-of-the-art facilities and a wide array of research opportunities. We currently have 187 graduate students who are advised by some 100 different faculty advisers, pursuing graduate research across 17 Departments and five Schools. Our undergraduate class-size of approximately 50 students per year ensures close student-faculty interactions in the classroom and the laboratory.

The main engineering building is located next to the Medical Center in Oakland, an elegant university neighborhood with museums, parks, and great restaurants. Beautiful new facilities have also been built, a short shuttle ride from the main campus, along the Monongahela River, replacing the steel mills that once were there. Our department is growing rapidly, both in numbers of students and faculty, and in the funding and diversity of our research. The Pittsburgh bioengineering community is a vibrant and stimulating alliance of diverse components for which our department forms an essential and central connection.


Steven Wellman Receives NIH F99/K00 Pre-to-Postdoc Award to Improve Brain Implants

Student Profiles, Bioengineering

Steven Wellman, a bioengineering PhD candidate at the University of Pittsburgh, received a Predoctoral to Postdoctoral Fellow Transition Award (F99/K00) from the National Institutes of Health for his work with neural interfacing technology. These revolutionary devices have the potential to significantly advance our understanding of brain function and enable researchers to restore motor and sensory control lost from neurological disorders.Wellman is a member of the BIONIC Lab at Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering, which is led by Takashi D.Y. Kozai, assistant professor of bioengineering. His doctoral work focuses on the limitations of penetrating brain microelectrodes and the mechanisms that contribute to device failure.“Despite the incredible potential of this technology to improve human health, the efficacy of intracortical microelectrodes for clinical therapy is limited by an inability to detect or modulate neurons over time and is presumed to be due to severe bodily reactions to a foreign object,” he said. Researchers have yet to determine the biological mechanisms behind device failure, but recent studies suggest that neurovascular dysfunction may play a role in progressive neuron loss and tissue failure after implantation. Wellman studies how pericytes, specialized cells that work closely with cerebral blood vessels in the brain, contribute to this process.“Neurovascular health and function are governed in part by perivascular pericytes,” he explained. “These cells demonstrate important roles in regulating vascular tone, blood-brain barrier integrity, and neuroimmune functions and have become increasingly recognized as prominent figures in the pathogenesis of brain inflammation and disease.” In his project, Wellman examines how the structure and function of brain pericytes are altered during microelectrode implantation and subsequently affect neuronal health and neurovascular function. To do so, he uses a combination of two-photon imaging, electrophysiology, adeno-associated viruses (AAVs), and optogenetics within mice.He also studies how pericyte activity can be modulated to improve neurovascular function and tissue health following brain injury. The results of this work could impact future therapies aimed at improving electrode-tissue integration, device performance and fidelity, and neurodegenerative brain injuries and diseases.“The human health benefits of neural interfacing technology are highlighted by their translational potential from bench-to-bedside,” Wellman added. “At the benchside, microelectrodes are an effective tool enabling neuroscientists to interface bi-directionally with neuronal, glial, and vascular cells within the brain in order to understand their physiological and pathological roles. “At the bedside, researchers have demonstrated the clinical power of neural microelectrodes as part of brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) for human rehabilitation by restoring motor control to tetraplegic patients and, more recently, going as far as re-establishing sensory input (haptic feedback) through bi-directional neuroprostheses.”Wellman’s work will not only impact the field of brain-computer interfaces, but it will also branch into other areas of brain research in which pericyte and vascular dysfunction are present, including ischemia, hemorrhagic stroke, cerebrovascular disease, and Alzheimer’s disease (AD). “Ultimately, my long-term career goal is to apply these advanced neurotechnologies and experimental methodologies to better understand and treat progressive neurodegenerative disease, particularly AD, in which neurovascular injury and dysfunction can figure prominently,” Wellman said.# # #

Lending a Helping Hand

Bioengineering, Student Profiles

Undergraduate students in a bioengineering design course at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering were tasked with identifying and innovating solutions to unmet clinical needs. From brainstorming to prototyping and testing, teams designed original medical products and applied to competitions to showcase their efforts.A team of students, including Emily Himelrick, Klaire Dickey, Rachel Lau, Seth Queen, Simon Shenk, Michael Shulock, Christopher Snodgrass, and Katherine Stevenson, were accepted to the ASAIO Student Design Competition — and clinched first place — for a project aimed to alleviate a simple but prevalent issue for medical professionals.“I asked my mom, a registered nurse, and my roommates who recently graduated from Pitt's nursing program to tell me about problems they encounter during their shifts,” said Himelrick. “A common complaint was the difficulty of donning gloves, especially with damp or wet hands. They noted that the issue was exacerbated in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic given the increase in required sanitization and personal protective equipment.”The design team took this feedback and began brainstorming potential solutions to ease the difficulty of donning gloves. Latex- and hydrogel-coated gloves are two existing alternatives to this issue — both absorb excess moisture and allow for easier donning, but these options also have their limitations.“Latex gloves are useful, but they’re rarely the supply of choice due to the prevalence of latex allergies,” Himelrick added. “The powder-free hydrogel coated gloves are also effective but cost significantly more than the typical nitrile examination gloves.” Users often wear larger gloves or apply two to each hand to combat this common issue, but these approaches are wasteful and compromise dexterity. According to the team’s research, the most common method to ease glove donning is to cup the opening and blow into it; however, even this simple method is not practical because it can spread germs from the mouth and is not feasible while wearing masks.For their project, they mimicked this simple, reliable method and created a device that circulates air through a glove, making it easier to quickly slip onto one’s hand. For the mechanism, they tested manual devices like inflator bulbs, foot pumps, and cans of compressed air and also tried powered devices, including an air compressor and a linear actuator. “Ultimately, we decided to use a linear actuator coupled with a syringe to create air pressure used to inflate the glove,” Himelrick explained. “The user simply places a glove over a funnel, which acts as an interface between the device and the glove.”The team iterated through several 3-D printed funnel designs that would fit every glove size and simplify user interaction with the device.“Our final design proved successful in the verification and validation testing conducted by the design team as well as nursing students and faculty at Pitt,” Himelrick said. “The design, although relatively simple, is innovative in its function and purpose, so the team is in the process of acquiring a provisional patent for our product. This experience has been incredibly rewarding and we were thrilled to present at the ASAIO Conference in June.”

Using Advanced Imaging to Study Sickle Cell Disease

Bioengineering, Banner, Research

Sickle Cell Disease (SCD) is a genetically inherited group of red blood cell disorders. According to the CDC, an estimated 90,000 to 100,000 people in the United States live with this disease, and it disproportionately affects Black or African Americans; it occurs in roughly 1 in every 500 individuals in this demographic.Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering used a unique and powerful MRI device to study the disease’s impact on the brain and published their results in Neuroimage: Clinical. They discovered that SCD can have a severe effect on specific subfields of the hippocampus - a highly complex part of the human brain that controls learning and memory and is very susceptible to injury or disorders.“This is a first-of-its-kind project that uses our lab’s whole-body 7-Tesla magnetic resonance imager (7T MRI) alongside our optimized Tic Tac Toe RF head coil system to get clear and quality neural images of patients affected by SCD,” said Tamer Ibrahim, professor of bioengineering and director of the Radiofrequency (RF) Research Facility and the 7-Tesla Bioengineering Research Program (7TBRP).Individuals with SCD have red blood cells that contain an abnormal hemoglobin. This can cause the red blood cells to become hard, sticky and mutate into a unique crescent shape which inhibits the cell’s passage through small blood vessels. These blockages affect blood and oxygen flow and consequently cause tissue damage — the source of many SCD complications.7-Tesla imaging has revealed abnormalities in the hippocampus for other neurodegenerative and neuroinflammatory diseases, so Ibrahim and his collaborators investigated SCD to see if it has a similar effect.“Our findings support and extend previous reports of reduced hippocampal volume in SCD patients but provide more insights on the specific hippocampal subfields that are impacted,” Ibrahim explained. “The subfields are tiny structures within the hippocampus which can only be seen in ultrahigh resolution acquisitions — a feature of 7-Tesla imaging — and enhanced with the ‘Tic-Tac-Toe’ antenna technology.”The next steps of this research are to investigate the mechanisms that lead to these structural changes in addition to electrical changes in the brain and how they relate to cognitive performance in SCD patients.Advancing “Tic-Tac-Toe”-Themed MRI TechnologyIbrahim continues to improve the lab’s 7-Tesla imaging technology, which is leveraged in 28 active collaborative projects funded by the National Institutes of Health. It is the most widely-used RF coil system in a given 7-Tesla site.This advanced technology can provide higher resolution and enhanced contrast human MRI images, but its operational frequency (~ 297 MHz) remains an obstacle in realizing the device’s full potential. Ibrahim’s group published recent findings related to their technology in Scientific Reports.“The major challenge of the 7-Tesla imaging is the inhomogeneities, or lack of uniformity, of the RF fields inside the human head, resulting in brain images with voids in certain anatomical regions,” said Tales Santini, a postdoctoral associate in the RF Research Facility. “In the past 12 years, our lab has developed innovative RF antenna designs which greatly increase the homogeneity of the fields, thus, enabling high resolution whole-brain images with minimal or no voids.”Example of hippocampal subfields segmentation in a patient with SCD. a) coronal slice of the MRI image; b, c) zoomed image showing details of the hippocampus structure; d, e) hippocampal subfields segmentations overlaying the MRI image; f) 3D reconstruction of the hippocampal subfield segmentations. Abbreviations - cornu ammonis 1–3, CA1-3; dentate gyrus, DG; hippocampal tail, Tail; subiculum, Sub; entorhinal cortex, ErC. Credit: NeuroImage: Clinical, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nicl.2021.102655.

Wagner and Woo Inducted as Fellows of IAMBE

Bioengineering, Chemical & Petroleum, Honors & Awards

Two bioengineering faculty members from the University of Pittsburgh were elected as Fellows of the International Academy of Medical and Biological Engineering (IAMBE). William R. Wagner and Savio L-Y. Woo were selected for this competitive election alongside 24 other internationally recognized leaders in the field. To date, there are fewer than 250 Fellows of the Academy throughout the world.Dr. Wagner was selected “for pioneering contributions to regenerative medicine and for integrating engineering expertise within the clinical environment, and championing innovation investment at the state and national level.” Dr. Woo’s election is “for pivotal contributions and leadership in biomechanics and bioengineering, leading to revolutionary treatments and rehabilitation strategies for improved patient care for ligament and tendon injuries worldwide.”“IAMBE Fellowship recognizes an individual for his/her outstanding contributions to the profession of medical and biological engineering,” said Sanjeev G. Shroff, Distinguished Professor and Gerald E. McGinnis Chair of Bioengineering at Pitt. “I am delighted to note that two of our colleagues, Dr. Savio Woo and Dr. William Wagner, were among the 26 IAMBE Fellows elected worldwide this year. Both of them have made seminal contributions to the field of bioengineering through their research, mentoring, and professional service and leadership, and they both are most deserving of this recognition. We are proud and honored to have them as a part of the Pitt bioengineering community.”About William R. WagnerDirector of the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine, Distinguished Professor of Surgery, Bioengineering and Chemical EngineeringDr. Wagner serves as Scientific Director of the NSF Engineering Research Center on “Revolutionizing Metallic Biomaterials” and Chief Science Officer for the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine. He is the Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief of one of the leading biomaterials journals, Acta Biomaterialia. He is past-president of the American Society for Artificial Internal Organs (ASAIO) and past chairman of the Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine International Society (TERMIS) Americas region. He is a fellow and former vice president of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE) and has also been elected a fellow of the Biomedical Engineering Society, the International Union of Societies for Biomaterials Science and Engineering, TERMIS, and the American Heart Association. In 2006 he was selected to the “Scientific American 50,” the magazine’s annual list recognizing leaders in science and technology from the research, business and policy fields.Dr. Wagner's research interests are in cardiovascular engineering with projects that address medical device biocompatibility and design, biomaterial development, and tissue engineering. His work has generated numerous patents (36 issued to date) and patent filings that have resulted in licensing activity, the formation of two companies, one of which initiated two clinical trials. (Read more)About Savio L-Y. WooDistinguished University Professor Emeritus of Bioengineering, Swanson School of EngineeringDr. Woo is the Founder and Director of the Musculoskeletal Research Center, a diverse multidisciplinary research and educational center in the Department of Bioengineering at Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering. He arrived at the University in 1990 after spending 20 years at the University of California, San Diego as a Professor of Surgery and Bioengineering. He is a member of the National Academy of Medicine (1991) (formerly the Institute of Medicine), the National Academy of Engineering (1994), and the Academia Sinica (1996), only one of five persons who have gained all three of these honors.Dr. Woo, a pioneer in bioengineering, is renowned for his 50 years of translational research and education to improve healing and repair of soft tissues. He and his colleagues have published 311 original research papers that have led to paradigm shifts in clinical management to improve patient outcomes. He has educated more than 500 orthopaedic surgeons, post-doctoral fellows and students from across the globe and has also successfully mentored 37 junior faculty members. (Read more)

Adding Sense of Touch Improves Control of Robotic Arm


Most nondisabled people take their ability to perform simple daily tasks for granted. When they reach for a warm mug of coffee, for instance, they can feel its weight and temperature and adjust their grip accordingly so that no liquid is spilled. People with full sensory and motor control of their arms and hands can know that they’ve made contact with an object the instant they touch or grasp it, allowing them to start moving or lifting it with confidence.But those tasks become much more difficult when a person operates a prosthetic arm—let alone a mind-controlled one.In a paper published today in Science, a team of bioengineers from the University of Pittsburgh Rehab Neural Engineering Labs describes how adding brain stimulation that evokes tactile sensations makes it easier for the operator to manipulate a brain-controlled robotic arm. In the experiment, supplementing vision with artificial tactile perception cut the time spent grasping and transferring objects in half, from a median time of 20.9 to 10.2 seconds.“In a sense, this is what we hoped would happen—but perhaps not to the degree that we observed,” said co-senior author Jennifer Collinger, associate professor in Pitt’s Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. “Sensory feedback from limbs and hands is hugely important for doing normal things in our daily lives, and when that feedback is lacking, people’s performance is impaired.”Study participant Nathan Copeland, whose progress was described in the paper, was the first person in the world to be implanted with tiny electrode arrays not just in his brain’s motor cortex but also in his somatosensory cortex—a region of the brain that processes sensory information from the body. Arrays allow him to control the robotic arm with his mind as well as to receive tactile sensory feedback, which is similar to how neural circuits operate when a person’s spinal cord is intact.“I was already extremely familiar with both the sensations generated by stimulation and performing the task without stimulation. Even though the sensation isn’t ‘natural’—it feels like pressure and gentle tingle—that never bothered me,” said Copeland. “There wasn't really any point where I felt like stimulation was something I had to get used to. Doing the task while receiving the stimulation just went together like PB&J.”After a car crash that left him with limited use of his arms, Copeland enrolled in a clinical trial testing the sensorimotor microelectrode brain-computer interface (BCI) and was implanted with four microelectrode arrays developed by Blackrock Microsystems (also commonly referred to as Utah arrays).This paper is a step forward from an earlier study that described for the first time how stimulating sensory regions of the brain using tiny electrical pulses can evoke sensation in distinct regions of a person’s hand, even though they had lost feeling in their limbs due to spinal cord injury. In this new study, the researchers combined reading the information from the brain to control the movement of the robotic arm with writing information back in to provide sensory feedback.In a series of tests in which the BCI operator was asked to pick up and transfer various objects from a table to a raised platform, providing tactile feedback through electrical stimulation allowed the participant to complete tasks twice as fast compared to tests without stimulation.In the new paper, the researchers wanted to test the effect of sensory feedback in conditions that would resemble the real world as closely as possible.“We didn’t want to constrain the task by removing the visual component of perception,” said co-senior author Robert Gaunt, associate professor in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. “When even limited and imperfect sensation is restored, the person’s performance improved in a pretty significant way. We still have a long way to go in terms of making the sensations more realistic and bringing this technology to people’s homes, but the closer we can get to recreating the normal inputs to the brain, the better off we will be.”Additional authors of this study include Sharlene Flesher, Jeffrey Weiss, Christopher Hughes, Angelica Herrera and Michael Boninger of Pitt; John Downey of the University of Chicago; and Elizabeth Tyler-Kabara of the University of Texas at Austin.This work was supported by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific (SSC Pacific).Anastasia Gorelova, 5/24/2021Contact: Anastasia Gorelova

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