Engineering a Healthier Future in EE

Engineering and medicine join forces to advance health care.

by Colleen Karuza

Students in Lab.

EE students working to create a test phantom arm that replicates key physiological functions of a human arm. When integrated with a series of implanted sensors, the test phantom will enable a wide variety of health care-related wearable technologies to be tested, validated, and baselined.

EE Students in Bioelectronics: Hands-On Research Experience

UB engineers and applied scientists, joining ranks with those on the frontlines of medicine and the life sciences, are providing game-changing solutions for many of health care’s most intractable challenges. Within their labs, ideas — both big and small — are incubated, shared, supported, tested and ultimately translated into real-world applications that benefit both patient and the biomedical community alike.

The retooling of 21st century medicine — with its tectonic shift to developing patient-tailored diagnostics and therapies, and its greater reliance on data sharing and interdisciplinary teamwork — is shaping the new health care landscape where the demand for simpler, better, smaller, less expensive, more convenient and more efficient technology is both unrelenting and urgent.

EE students have the opportunity to conduct research with faculty in their labs. Brett Bosinski, Phil Schneider and Adam Trimper are involved in bioelectronic research, advised by Professor Kwang W. Oh.

Big Ideas Originating from Small

Kwang W. Oh is director of UB’s Sensors and MicroActuators Learning Lab (SMALL), a place, he says, where big things stem from micro- and nanotechnology, the science of manipulating matter at micro, molecular and atomic scales. Focusing on micro- and nanotechnology-based biological micro-electro-mechanical-systems (BioMEMS), Oh provides life scientists and physicians with the right tools “to solve problems in their own fields.”

Oh came to UB in 2006 from Samsung, where he served as a member of its senior research and development team. “I was exposed to the very real problems facing the life sciences and subsequently developed a keen interest in applying engineering tools to the fields of biomedical research,” he said. At UB, he found other like-minded individuals who understood the important interplay of biology and technology.

Oh, who holds appointments in the Departments of Electrical Engineering and Biomedical Engineering, explains that the science behind BioMEMS has played a significant role in ushering in recent advances in genomics, proteomics, single cell analysis and point- of-care diagnostics. BioMEMS research encompasses lab-on-a-chip technology, in which one or more laboratory functions are integrated onto a single chip using trace amounts of fluids, such as blood. Microfluidics forms the basis for much of Oh’s research, including the building of phantom models to test wearable medical devices.

In 2015, he received funding from Qualcomm, a multinational semiconductor and telecommunications equipment company headquartered in San Diego, to develop a phantom arm to test a new blood pressure monitor. To be effective, the limb would need to mimic the physiological and acoustical properties of a human arm, he said.

Phil Schneider, one of six students in SMALL and also a Western New York Prosperity Scholar and 2018 SUNY Chancellor's Award winner, worked on this project. “I had done an internship with Qualcomm where we worked on creating a new type of wearable sensor that can be worn on an arm to measure different types of vascular compliance features like heart rate and blood pressure. We took this research a step further by developing a creative way to test the sensor."

“We wound up developing a workable arm with artificial blood vessels, but it lacked certain subdermal properties,” said Schneider, who will complete his doctorate in electrical engineering in May. ”With additional funding from the National Science Foundation, “we designed and created a phantom finger that had all the dermotographic features necessary for device testing — digital arteries, bone, fat, muscle, fingerprints and a fully functioning 3-D blood capillary network.”

The technology used to create these phantom models has important health care applications, said Schneider. “Imagine a time in the not-too-distant future where individuals can pick up a wearable blood pressure or heart monitoring device at their local drugstore. It could be that simple and convenient.”

Traditional Notions Challenged

In Oh’s lab, the traditional notions of problem solving are routinely challenged, and sometimes solutions to stubborn problems really do require MacGyver-like resourcefulness. “You have to think out of the box and wear the hat of a scientist,” said Schneider, whose grandfather and father are both engineers. “Some people say that I’m not a real electrical engineer because I don’t do circuits, but the truth is that the electrical engineers of today are far more diverse in their talent and areas of interest.”

When Oh’s team was looking at ways to build capillaries for their phantom finger, “we discovered that all it took was $60 and an Amazon Prime membership,” jokes Schneider, who purchased a cotton candy machine online. “A human capillary is roughly the same size as a single cotton candy fiber so we used these strands to successfully build a small vascular network.”

And what do Easter eggs have to offer bioengineering research? “Quite a lot,” says Oh. Inspired by the traditional Ukrainian Easter egg painting technique called “pysanky,” in which elaborate miniature wax designs are printed on the surface of an egg, “we applied a paraffin wax-based approach to low cost, rapid prototyping of microfluidic devices.”

Oh is also investigating new ways to harness vacuum-driven energy to create more reliable microfluidic components, such as micropumps and microvalves, to facilitate lab-on-a-chip commercialization. “We have devised a manual, syringe-assisted, vacuum-driven micropump for plasma separation from a tiny drop of finger-prick blood and believe it has the potential to lead to practical biomedical lab-on-a-chip devices that can screen for glucose levels, cancer cells, viruses, DNA molecules and other applications.”

Happy Marriage

Because technology provides the tools and biology the problems, the two should enjoy a happy marriage.

Oh likes to share his favorite quote, which he came across in a journal article, with his colleagues and trainees. “It pretty much sums up the relationship our engineers have with clinicians and life scientists,” he says.

Published June 1, 2019