Three recent Penn Bioengineering graduates took home the Best Application Award from the Medical Robotics for Contagious Disease Challenge, part of the three-month Hamlyn Symposium on Medical Robotics. Organized by the Hamlyn Centre at Imperial College, London, UK, in collaboration with the UK-RAS Network, the challenge involved “creating a 2-minute video of robotic or AI technology that could be used to tackle contagious diseases” in response to the current and potential future pandemics. Yasmina Al Ghadban, Rob Paslaski, and Phuong Vu were members of the Penn Bioengineering senior design team rUmVa who designed and built a cost-effective, autonomous robot that can quickly disinfect rooms by intelligently sanitizing high-touch surfaces and the air. The Best Application Award comes with a prize of £5,000.
Each year, Penn Engineering’s seniors present their Senior Design projects, a year-long effort that challenges them to test and develop solutions to real-world problems, to their individual departments. The top three projects from each department go on to compete in the annual Senior Design Competition, sponsored by the Engineering Alumni Society, which involves pitching projects to a panel of judges who evaluate their potential in the market. While the pandemic made this year’s competition logistically challenging, students and organizers were able to come together virtually to continue the tradition.
This year’s virtual format provided an opportunity for judges from around the country to participate in evaluating projects. Brad Richards, Director of Alumni Relations at Penn Engineering who helped plan the competition, was able to help recruit more than 60 volunteers to serve on the panel.
“The broad number of judges from varying industries made this competition incredibly meaningful, we will absolutely be integrating a virtual component to allow for more judges in the future.”
Eighteen teams total, three from each department, virtually presented to the panel of judges, who awarded $2,000 prizes in four categories.
Technology & Innovation Prize
This award recognized the team whose project represents the highest and best use of technology and innovation to leverage engineering principles.
Winner: Team OtoAI Department: Bioengineering Team Members: Krishna Suresh, Nikhil Maheshwari, Yash Lahoti, Jonathan Mairena, Uday Tripathi Advisor: Steven Eliades, Assistant Professor of Otorhinolaryngology in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine Abstract: OtoAI is a novel digital otoscope that enables primary care physicians to take images of the inner ear and leverages machine learning to diagnose abnormal ear pathologies.
Each Penn Bioengineering (BE) student’s undergraduate experience culminates in Senior Design, a two-semester capstone project in which student teams conceive, design, and develop a bioengineering project, whether a medical device, molecular biological therapeutic, or research tool. Projects are inherently interdisciplinary, and can involve biomaterials, electronics, mechanics, molecular biology, nanotechnology, and microfluidics. Research and development is supervised by BE faculty, lab staff, and graduate student TA’s and project managers, and work is conducted in the George H. Stephenson Foundation Educational Laboratory & Bio-MakerSpace (which successfully reopened for in-person activities this Spring semester).
This year’s 11 teams included the variety and innovation we’ve come to expect from our outstanding students, ranging from devices which track medical conditions, such afib and POTS, to technology responding to our post-COVID world, such as a disinfecting robot and a kit to make telemedicine more effective. The year finished with presentations to alumni judges, and BE’s annual Demo Day (the only in-person demo day on the engineering campus this year) on April 15, 2021, in which students showcased their designs to faculty.
Several teams were highlighted for awards recognition.
Tula won the Grand Prize Award at the Weiss Tech House Senior Design Pitch competition, sponsored by Penn’s Weiss Tech House, as well as a Berkman Opportunity Fund grant from Penn Engineering. Tula’s members are Bioengineering student Shreya Parchure (BSE 2021 & MSE 2021), Mechanical Engineering student Miriam Glickman (BSE 2021 & MSE 2022), and Computer Science students Ebtihal Jasim (BSE 2021) and Tiffany Tsang (BSE 2021).
TelemedTree (David Alanis Garza, Aurora Cenaj & Raveen Kariyawasam) and rUmVA (Yasmina Al Ghadban, Rachel Madhogarhia, Jeong Inn Park, Robert Paslaski & Phuong Vu) also received Berkman Opportunity Fund grants.
RHO Therapeutics was named a finalist in the Rice 360 Design Competition for 2021 (David Bartolome, Ethan Boyer, Patrisia de Anda, Kelly Feng & Jenny Nguyen).
In addition, three teams won BE’s internal Senior Design competition: IdentiFly (MEAM student Armando Cabrera, ESE student Ethan Chaffee, MEAM student Zachary Lane, ESE student Nicoleta Manu & BE student Abum Okemgbo), OtoAI, and rUmVa.
Short descriptions of each project are below. See each project’s full abstract, final paper, and video presentation here. The full 2021 presentation Youtube playlist is linked below.
reActive is a low-cost wearable device that measures ground reaction force as well as knee angle to aid physical therapists in quantifying an athlete’s recovery from an ACL injury.
EndoMagno is a novel magnetic endoscopy probe that effectively grips metallic objects by interfacing with an endoscope.
NoFib is an at-home wearable for athletes with histories of atrial fibrillation or those recovering from ablation surgeries who wish to continue their workout regimen and track their cardiac recovery without needing to leave their residence.
Tula is a smart compression stocking platform to improve quality of life for people with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), a disease which causes fainting upon standing due to blood pooling in legs. Tula can predict a POTS attack through real-time heart rate monitoring and then prevent fainting using dynamic compression.
RHO Therapeutics is a low-cost, wearable glove device that trains fine motor movements using a rehabilitative game that causes motor-mediated flexion and extension of the patient’s hand to aid in chronic stroke rehabilitation.
EarForce aims to monitor fighter pilots’ health during training and in-flight missions via a low-cost headphone system. The device collects physiological data through the ear and is compatible with existing pilot headphone systems.
IdentiFly is a low-cost device which will provide labs with an easy to integrate way to automatically sort fruit flies by sex.
TeleMedTree introduces a new level of telemedicine. It is an affordable precision-focused, at-home diagnostic kit to help immunocompromised individuals with respiratory conditions receive a high quality monitoring of their health that is on par or better than what is possible during an in-person visit.
OtoAI is a novel digital otoscope that enables primary care physicians to take images of the inner ear and leverages machine learning to diagnose abnormal ear pathologies.
Synchro-Sense is a device which detects when patients on ventilators are at maximum inhalation and triggers an X-ray image capture for accuracy.
rUmVa is a cost-effective, autonomous robot that can quickly disinfect rooms by intelligently sanitizing high-touch surfaces and the air.
While reflecting on her undergraduate journey at Penn, senior Yasmina Al Ghadban says that she has a “ton of memories” she will take with her: lifelong friends made and skills developed through coursework, research, and teaching experiences, the chance to engage with public health communities on campus, and traveling for courses and internships. “That’s the beauty of Penn,” she says. “There’s just so many opportunities everywhere.”
As a double major in bioengineering and psychology, Al Ghadban, who is from Beirut, has certainly taken advantage of many such opportunities. Now, she is poised to leverage her “interdisciplinary lens” towards a future career in public health.
Looking for a place to grow and become more independent, Al Ghadban decided to come to Penn after graduating from the International College in Lebanon. After taking an introduction to bioengineering course during her freshman year, she became enthralled by the hands-on nature of the program and enrolled in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. “I really enjoyed working with circuits and Arduino, being able to synthesize things, and I felt like being in engineering was the place where I was going to gain the most skills,” she says.
Al Ghadban is applying those skills as she completes her senior design project. She and a team of four seniors are building an autonomous robot equipped with Lidar sensors that it uses to create a map of a physical space. The team also programmed their robot to recognize high-touch surfaces that it then disinfects with UV light. “It’s a technology that is completely autonomous, cheaper than what’s on the market, and doesn’t put people at risk when they go in to disinfect,” she says. The team recently put the finishing touches on the project and presented their robot as part of a demonstration on April 14.
In addition to her degree in engineering, Al Ghadban’s interests in public and mental health spurred her to take courses and eventually pursue a double major in psychology, a field that she sees as complementary to engineering. “In psychology, we focus a lot on research and study design, research bias, and these things are similar in engineering and psychology,” she says. “Overall, I think they gave me different perspectives in terms of problem solving, and it’s nice to have that interdisciplinary lens.”
One place where Al Ghadban was able to use this interdisciplinary lens was while working as an research assistant in the Rehabilitation Robotics Lab with Michelle Johnson during her sophomore year. “The focus of the lab is to create robots for post-stroke rehabilitation, and the robotics part is very engineering-focused, but there is another part where people struggle doing the exercises,” she says. “Being able to engage with people and increasing their likelihood of doing that intervention, you rely on a lot from psychology, like interventions from positive psychology or research on how people stay engaged.”
Diabetes is one of the more common diseases among Americans today, with the American Diabetes Association estimating that approximately 9.5 percent of the population battles the condition today. Though symptoms and causes may vary across types and patients, diabetes generally results from the body’s inability to produce enough insulin to keep blood sugar levels in check. A new experimental treatment from the lab of Sha Jin, Ph.D., a biomedical engineering professor at Binghamton University, aims to use about $1.2 million in recent federal grants to develop a method for pancreatic islet cell transplantation, as those are the cells responsible for producing insulin.
But the catch to this new approach is that relying on healthy donors of these islet cells won’t easily meet the vast need for them in diabetic patients. Sha Jin wants to use her grants to consider the molecular mechanisms that can lead pluripotent stem cells to become islet-like organoids. Because pluripotent stem cells have the capability to evolve into nearly any kind of cell in the human body, the key to Jin’s research is learning how to control their mechanisms and signaling pathways so that they only become islet cells. Jin also wants to improve the eventual culture of these islet cells into three-dimensional scaffolds by finding ways of circulating appropriate levels of oxygen to all parts of the scaffold, particularly those at the center, which are notoriously difficult to accommodate. If successful in her tissue engineering efforts, Jin will not only be able to help diabetic patients, but also open the door to new methods of evolving pluripotent stem cells into mini-organ models for clinical testing of other diseases as well.
A Treatment to Help Others See Better
Permanently crossed eyes, a medical condition called strabismus, affects almost 18 million people in the United States, and is particularly common among children. For a person with strabismus, the eyes don’t line up to look at the same place at the same time, which can cause blurriness, double vision, and eye strain, among other symptoms. Associate professor of bioengineering at George Mason University, Qi Wei, Ph.D., hopes to use almost $2 million in recent funding from the National Institute of Health to treat and diagnose strabismus with a data-driven computer model of the condition. Currently, the most common method of treating strabismus is through surgery on one of the extraocular muscles that contribute to it, but Wei wants her model to eventually offer a noninvasive approach. Using data from patient MRIs, current surgical procedures, and the outcomes of those procedures, Wei hopes to advance and innovate knowledge on treating strabismus.
A Newly Analyzed Brain Mechanism Could be the Key to Stopping Seizures
Among neurological disorders, epilepsy is one of the most common. An umbrella term for a lot of different seizure-inducing conditions, many versions of epilepsy can be treated pharmaceutically. Some, however, are resistant to the drugs used for treatment, and require surgical intervention. Bin He, Ph. D., the Head of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, recently published a paper in collaboration with researchers at Mayo Clinic that describes the way that seizures originating at a single point in the brain can be regulated by what he calls “push-pull” dynamics within the brain. This means that the propagation of a seizure through the brain relies on the impact of surrounding tissue. The “pull” he refers to is of the surrounding tissue towards the seizure onset zone, while the “push” is what propagates from the seizure onset zone. Thus, the strength of the “pull” largely dictates whether or not a seizure will spread. He and his lab looked at different speeds of brain rhythms to perform analysis of functional networks for each rhythm band. They found that this “push-pull” mechanism dictated the propagation of seizures in the brain, and suggest future pathways of treatment options for epilepsy focused on this mechanism.
Hyperspectral Imaging Might Provide New Ways of Finding Cancer
A new method of imaging called hyperspectral imaging could help improve the prediction of cancerous cells in tissue specimens. A recent study from a University of Texas Dallas team of researchers led by professor of bioengineering Baowei Fei, Ph.D., found that a combination of hyperspectral imaging and artificial intelligence led to an 80% to 90% level of accuracy in identifying the presence of cancer cells in a sample of 293 tissue specimens from 102 patients. With a $1.6 million grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, Fei wants to develop a smart surgical microscope that will help surgeons better detect cancer during surgery.
Fei’s use of hyperspectral imaging allows him to see the unique cellular reflections and absorptions of light across the electromagnetic spectrum, giving each cell its own specific marker and mode of identification. When paired with artificial intelligence algorithms, the microscope Fei has in mind can be trained to specifically recognize cancerous cells based on their hyperspectral imaging patterns. If successful, Fei’s innovations will speed the process of diagnosis, and potentially improve cancer treatments.
People and Places
A group of Penn engineering seniors won the Pioneer Award at the Rothberg Catalyzer Makerthon led be Penn Health-Tech that took place from October 19-20, 2019. SchistoSpot is a senior design project created by students Vishal Tien (BE ‘20), Justin Swirbul (CIS ‘20), Alec Bayliff (BE ‘20), and Bram Bruno (CIS ‘20) in which the group will design a low-cost microscopy dianostic tool that uses computer vision capabilities to automate the diagnosis of schistosomiasis, which is a common parasitic disease. Read about all the winners here.
Virginia Tech University will launch a new Cancer Research Initiative with the hope of creating an intellectual community across engineers, veterinarians, biomedical researchers, and other relevant scientists. The initiative will focus not only on building better connections throughout departments at the university, but also in working with local hospitals like the Carilion Clinic and the Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C. Through these new connections, people from all different areas of science and engineering and come together to share ideas.
Associate Professor of Penn Bioengineering Dani Bassett, Ph.D., recently sat down with the Penn Integrates Knowledge University Professor Duncan Watts, Ph.D., for an interview published in Penn Engineering. Bassett discusses the origins of network science, her research in small-world brain networks, academic teamwork, and the pedagogy of science and engineering. You can read the full interview here.
Vector Flow Imaging Helps Visualize Blood Flow in Pediatric Hearts
A group of biomedical engineers at the University of Arkansas used a new ultrasound-based imaging technique called vector flow imaging to help improve the diagnosis of congenital heart disease in pediatric patients. The study, led by associate professor of biomedical engineering Morten Jensen, Ph.D., collaborated with cardiologists at the local Children’s Hospital in Little Rock to produce images of the heart in infants to help potentially diagnose congenital heart defects. Though the use of vector flow imaging has yet to be developed for adult patients, this type of imaging could possibly provide more detail about the direction of blood flow through the heart than traditional techniques like echocardiography do. In the future, the use of both techniques could provide information about both the causes and larger effects of heart defects in patients.
Using Stem Cells to Improve Fertility in Leukemia Survivors
One of the more common side effects of leukemia treatment in female patients is infertility, but researchers at the University of Michigan want to change that. Led by associate professor of biomedical engineering Ariella Shikanov, Ph.D., researchers in her lab found ways of increasing ovarian follicle productivity in mice, which directly relates to the development of mature eggs. The project involves the use of adipose-derived stem cells, that can be found in human fat tissue, to surround the follicles in an ovary-like, three-dimensional scaffold. Because the radiation treatments for leukemia and some other cancers are harmful to follicles, increasing their survival rate with this stem cell method could reduce the rate of infertility in patients undergoing these treatments. Furthermore, this new approach is innovative in its use of a three-dimensional scaffold as opposed to a two-dimensional one, as it stimulates follicle growth in all directions and thus helps to increase the follicle survival rate.
Penn Engineers Look at How Stretching & Alignment of Collagen Fibers Help Cancer Cells Spread
Cancer has such a massive impact on people’s lives that it might be easy to forget that the disease originates at the cellular level. To spread and cause significant damage, individual cancer cells must navigate the fibrous extracellular environment that cells live in, an environment that Penn Engineer Vivek Shenoy has been investigating for years.
Shenoy’s most recent study on cancer’s mechanical environment was led by a postdoctoral researcher in his lab, Ehsan Ban. Paul Janmey, professor in Physiology and Bioengineering, and colleagues at Stanford University also contributed to the study. Shenoy also received the Heilmeier Award this March and delivered the Heilmeier Award Lecture in April.
Controlled Electrical Stimulation Can Prevent Joint Replacement Infections
Joint replacements are one of the most common kinds of surgery today, but they still require intense post-operative therapy and have a risk of infection from the replacement implant. These infections are usually due to the inflammatory response that the body has to any foreign object, and can become serious and life-threatening if left untreated. Researchers at the University of Buffalo Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences hope to offer a solution to preventing infections through the use of controlled electrical stimulation. Led by Mark Ehrensberger, Ph.D., Kenneth A. Krackow, M.D., and Anthony A. Campagnari, Ph.D., the treatment system uses the electrical signal to create an antibacterial environment at the interface of the body and the implant. While the signal does not prevent infections completely, these antibacterial properties will prevent infections from worsening to a more serious level. Patented as the Biofilm Disruption Device TM, the final product uses two electrode skin patches and a minimally invasive probe that delivers the electrical signal directly to the joint-body interface. The researchers behind the design hope that it can help create a more standard way of effectively treating joint replacement infections.
People and Places
For their senior design project, four bioengineering seniors — Gabriel Koo, Ethan Zhao, Daphne Cheung, and Shelly Teng — created a low-cost tuberculosis diagnostic that they called TBx. Using their knowledge of the photoacoustic effect of certain dyes, the platform the group created can detect the presence of lipoarabinomannan in patient urine. The four seniors presented TBx at the Rice360 Design Competition in Houston, Texas this spring, which annually features student-designed low-cost global health technologies.
Cataracts are a leading cause of vision loss worldwide. In the world’s more developed countries, laser is commonly used for cataract removal. However, in much of the developing world, lasers are expensive or difficult to acquire. In these countries, cataract surgeries are still largely performed freehand, with all of the attendant risks that such procedures involve.
One of this year’s senior design projects in the Department of Bioengineering at Penn was a surgical tool for ophthalmic surgeons to perform capsulorhexis, the fancy term for the circular incision necessary to remove a cataract. The team, which included seniors Akshatha Bhat, Nimay Kulkarni, Steven Polomski, and Ananya Sureshkumar, collaborated with the Aravind Eye Hospital in Puducherry, India, created a surgical device called the Rhex to create this round incision
The Rhex (right) consists of a stem with a ring at the end, into which a blade is fitted. It can be inserted into a scleral incision, pressed, and rotated to perform the capsulorhexis. Initial testing indicated the Rhex could create a circulation incision approximately 6.7 mm in diameter, with eccentricity (indicating deviation from a perfect circle) of 0.254±0.08, which was within the acceptable range determined by the team.
The students designed the Rhex to be autoclavable and to use disposable blades. The next step will be to decrease the size of the instrument further and perhaps to use translucent or even transparent material to produce newer prototypes, which could be particularly useful, since cataract surgeries are open performed using backlighting.
With increasing age in the population, Parkinson’s disease has become increasingly common. One of the most frustrating effects of the disease is freezing of gait (FOG), in which a patient will suddenly stop while walking and find it difficult to begin again. Falls are a common consequence.
Despite intensive research, FOG is poorly understood. However, studies have shown that certain external stimuli, including metronomes and devices that provide visual cues, can be helpful. With this knowledge, a team of bioengineering students set to tackle this issue with their senior design project.
The team —whose members were Priyanka Ghosh, Fiona La, Laurel Leavitt, and Lia Lombardi — came up with ShuffleAssist, a wearable device that uses force sensors and an internal measurement unit to detect FOG and automatically provide a cue for the patient. The patient can choose a metronome beat or visual laser cue that can be provided either as determined by the device or continually, for patients who so choose.
ShuffleAssist tested well among normal subjects, detecting FOG correctly 98% of the time within approximate one second. In addition, the students were able to create their prototype for a cost of $107 per unit, compared to similarly intended products already on the market costing more than twice that much.
The next step for the team is to test the device in actual patients with Parkinson’s. The students have left the device with a faculty member in the Perelman School of Medicine who treats patients with motor disorders. This faculty member will offer the device to patients for testing.
See below for a video demonstration of ShuffleAssist.
One of the Penn Bioengineering Department’s senior projects was the work of a two-person team: Brianna Wronko and Guyrandy Jean-Gilles. The result of their work was the MultiDiagnostic, a microfluidics platform that the two students describe as “A Fast, Inexpensive, and Accessible Diagnostic Solution.”
Brianna says that the project was originally conceived as a way for HIV clinics and treatment centers to test biological parameters such as viral load. However, the inability of Brianna and Guy to handle HIV-infected blood in the lab, as well as the desire to generate a product that could both serve patients directly and have a commercial focus. They decided their first offering would consist of liver function tests.
Manufactured by an automated process, the MultiDiagnostic is a paper microfluidics platform with a software component that can be run on a computer or cell phone. When a bodily fluid is placed into the platform, it diffuses into separate chambers of the platform, where colorimetric analysis is then conducted and data communicated via the software’s graphical user interface to the user.
The students currently have the platform in preclinical trials for the testing of aspartase aminotransferase and alkaline phosphatase; the ability to test alanine aminotransferase, bilirubin, and total protein are in the prototyping stage. Their current model is priced at a $10 customer price, which is considerably less expensive than competing technologies already on the market.
Among the most interesting aspects of this senior project team, other than the product itself, was that it had only two members. Asked how this fact affected their work, Brianna admitted that it posed a bit of an obstacle at first. However, she said, “we decided to break up the concept into parts, with me doing the wet lab parts, in which I have a background and Guy, whose background is in software, doing those parts.” In the end, they’re very happy with their final product.