Q. What do cyborg beetles and the smart bandage have in common? A. An innovative researcher.

Author: Hamideh Emrani, 08/10/15

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In her series “What drives research in the field of biomaterials?” blogger Hamideh Emrani interviews a third highly respected biomaterials researcher. You can read her interviews with Professors John Davies and Craig Simmons (University of Toronto) here and here.

Michel Maharbiz PhD

Michel Maharbiz PhD

My last post was about an exciting development called the smart bandage. I was visiting my Alma Mater, UC Berkeley, and got an amazing opportunity to interview Professor Michel Maharbiz, whose lab developed the smart bandage. Michel Maharbiz is an associate professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences. His lab is also famous for developing the world’s first radio controlled cyborg beetle, which was on the 2009 top 10 emerging technologies list of MIT’s Technology Review, and TIME magazine’s TOP 50 inventions of 2009.

Professor Maharbiz, who has been a GE Scholar and an IMAP (Intel Master’s Award Program) Fellow, received his PhD from UC Berkeley in 2003. From 2003 until 2007, he was an assistant professor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He is an award winning researcher, educator and entrepreneur who has contributed to multiple startups such as Microreactor Technologies, Inc., Tweedle Technologies, Quswami, Inc. and Cortera Neurotechnologies, Inc. (You can read more about his awards here.)

I had the great pleasure of meeting him in person and talking to him about his work.

Your lab works on projects ranging from cyborg beetles to developing micro and nano interfaces for cells to grow on. What especially attracts you to these types of projects?

I really like the interface between man-made technology and biology. This is a really broad statement and as a result my group has worked on a variety of different interfaces. I spend a lot of time making sure that the projects in my group have some sort of cohesion. Right now, we work on developing a lot of neural and wound healing interfaces. Smart bandage is an outcome of one of these projects. We also look at systems for bacterial synthetic biology and of course we continue our work with insects.

What do you mean exactly when you talk about building an interface for wound healing, for instance? What are some other examples?

There’s a variety of different projects in which we are looking to see how we can apply technology to make some of the clinical interventions and solutions used to treat a wound more effectively. The smart bandage right now is kind of the marquee project in this area. We hypothesized that multielectrode impedence spectroscopy would allow us to solve something about the wounds even if they were invisible, like the case of pressure ulcers. This is part of a multidisciplinary project involving multiple professors and researchers. We are developing small devices and sensors, such as the smart bandage, that we would implement to provide us with information on physiological events that are not visible to the eye. Another example is a diagnostic device that, using the same technology as the smart bandage, can monitor the site of a bone fracture. This would provide physicians with more information on the extent of bone healing, and can prevent problematic fractures from progressing to “nonunion.” One other example is a small biocompatible sensor designed to go over the surgical mesh that is used in hernia repairs. Surgeons will be able to monitor the stress on the repair mesh and modify their procedure during surgery. This would decrease the hernia recurrence. Our ultimate goal is to use this device to keep patients actively involved in their post-operative care by alerting them when they put extra strain on the surgical site.

Is the technology that you use mostly impedance spectroscopy or do you use different ones for each project?

The majority of what we are doing right now, in the case of wound healing, is impedance spectroscopy. Although for the hernia project we are also looking at a variety of imaging techniques as well. More broadly speaking, we use a range of different technologies such as impedance spectroscopy, ultrasound, and optogenetics stimulation and imaging. For instance, in the context of neural interfaces, all of our work focuses on building different and improved physiological or optical stimulations and recording technologies.

Which parts of your research do you enjoy the most and what is the biggest challenge in your field?

I really like all the projects that we have and sometimes it is a bit difficult to keep up because there are so many. There are many challenges across all the projects that we work on, that I find incredibly stimulating. In the case of developing neural interfaces, building a high-density recording system, that is stable in a mammal or a primate for a substantial fraction of that primate’s lifetime, is a huge challenge and a long-term goal for a lot of people. I find the idea that you could build stable systems that are integrated with insects and arthropods in general are also an interesting challenge. This is a really hard problem, but it is more of an esoteric thing. Same thing goes with wound healing and monitoring; I mean developing systems that can provide really useful clinical data across patient populations is a hard problem.

Would it be fair to say the main challenge in such projects could be the amount of data that are produced? We would need techniques to go through these data and recognize what is normal and what is abnormal.

Yes, with the wound healing work, that is the challenge. It is not so much the amount of data, it’s the classification. For instance, how to make sense of the data? The same thing happens in neural recording. The amount of data that those projects create are huge. Here at UC Berkeley, there are multiple studies going on with the LBL [Lawrence Berkeley Lab] to figure out how to interpret and what to do with that amount of data that are produced by imaging techniques.

What would be your vision for the field of biomaterials?

I consider myself as more of an engineer and I think we’re entering a few decades where the engineered materials and technologies are so small that you can put them in different parts of the body. For instance, my main temptation with the cyborg beetle project was to show people how really small you can make these devices. And, as a result, some people really freaked out, which I think is a good reaction. I believe that when we are moving so fast towards advancing all these technologies, we also need to be prepared to make intelligent decisions. Is this a good idea? Maybe we shouldn’t do this or that. There would be a lot of ethical challenges that I think would be really interesting problems for a young researcher to think about.

Let me give you an example of an interesting problem that is relevant right now: A lot of electronic companies are making these simple gadgets that measure your blood pressure, heart rate, or other physiologic functions, and presumably these are not medical and clinical devices. However, these are all clinically useful data and at some point that line is going to be crossed. There will be a day when a physician or a clinician will need to make a decision off the data. Then, the device is no longer just for amusement or entertaining, it becomes a clinical device.

Would this be like the whole class of wearable technology?

Oh, it is not limited to wearable technology. Very soon it is going to be internalizable technology. We are going to see some very interesting things coming along. There is this company called Proteous Digital Health selling this little pill that contains a chip that you take. And when the pill dissolves, the chip uses your stomach acid as an electrolyte and basically collects and sends out signals about the person who took the pill. That’s a very simple example of something really elegant and useful. However, as all these technologies are expanded, you start thinking is that OK? Is it good for me? Who should be able to use all this data? And so on.

There are so many good ideas out there. Is there a specific metric that young researchers and entrepreneurs in this field should consider?

First of all, I think you should always go with your passion. I find that if you are honest and driven and you follow your passion, you can find your way. Eventually you’ll find the things that you enjoy and that you’re good at. I think that it takes a long time to get good at something and you have to be really in the field. So, I would just say read the papers, read the literature and become part of the community. After a while you’ll start to find that you can build your own filter and get a sense of what is really happening. And you can do this in a reasonable time frame and still retain your youthful passion.

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Hamideh Emrani

Hamideh Emrani

Hamideh is a scientific communicator and the founder of Emrani Communications, serving clients in Toronto (University of Toronto) and California (Stanford University). She earned her B.Sc. in Cell and Molecular Biology at UC Berkeley and finished her M.Sc. at the University of Toronto (U of T). She was an intern at the Carnegie Institute at Stanford University, honours research student at UC Berkeley and has won awards for best podium and best poster presentations at the Faculty of Dentistry and IBBME at U of T. She is passionate about science and loves to talk and write about it. You can follow Hamideh on Twitter at @HamidehEmrani.
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