CWRU researchers awarded more than $6 million in Ohio Third Frontier grants

Researchers from Case Western Reserve University and partners have won more than $6 million in Ohio Third Frontier grants to develop new technologies while training students for growing fields and helping create jobs in the state.

Testing implantable computer network

Hunter Peckham, the Donnell Institute Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Distinguished University Professor at Case Western Reserve, leads an effort to test and commercialize a fully implantable computer network, including multiple neural stimulation interfaces. The system would enable a quadriplegic to move arms and legs, control breathing and bladder, to cough and more.

The Ohio Development Services Agency awarded $3 million to the proposal, and the university and Cleveland-based industrial partners will match the funding.

“Every neural prosthesis today is for one function,” Peckham said. “One pilot—which is what we call the power module containing the computer processing unit, network connections and batteries—runs all the interfaces to record nerve activity or stimulate the nerves and connected muscles.”

Peckham’s team at the Functional Electrical Stimulation Center developed the network during the past eight years, with funding from the National Institutes of Health.

“This platform is modular and scalable,” he said. “It can be tailored to each patient’s needs.”

The only hardware that will be outside the body are wireless rechargers patients would use to charge the batteries once or twice a year while they sleep.

The network is aimed at those who suffer spinal cord injuries, stroke or multiple sclerosis, but also to ease chronic pain or regain control sapped by Parkinson’s disease or other maladies.

University researchers are pursing Federal Drug Administration approval to begin their first human study of the system by next spring, said Brian Smith, the project manager. The study will accept up to 10 individuals.

With the new funding, NDI Medical LLC will take the technology through a host of validation and verification testing required to manufacture the medical device on a commercial scale. SPR Therapeutics will commercialize the network for chronic joint and limb pain, and Valtronic, which specializes in combining mechanical, electrical, control and computer engineering in design work, will assist in the final product.

Ohio Third Frontier also awarded grants for three other promising projects.

Commercializing MRI technologies

Researchers in the physics department have received a $3 million grant to assist two Ohio companies to commercialize new Magnetic Resonance Imaging technologies.

The researchers are working with Quality Electrodynamics, of Mayfield, to develop a breast cancer biopsy imaging and guidance system that will be more accurate and faster than current methods.

“Because of the flexible nature of breast tissue it’s hard to know for sure if you got the right tissue when you biopsy after a mammography, especially if the suspicious area is small,” said Michael Martens, an associate professor of physics at Case Western Reserve and the lead grant recipient.

QED and the researchers are building a special coil that produces the image and steers the biopsy needle.

“It’s an integrated system,” Martens said. “When you see a suspicious area, you go in using a precise, MRI-guided needle and you know you’ve got the right tissue.”

The system would fulfill an American College of Radiology requirement that MRI centers provide MR guided biopsies in order to receive accreditation for breast scanning.

Martens’ group is also working with Hyper Tech Research in Columbus to provide the industry with an alternative to increasingly expensive liquid helium to cool MRI’s.

“Hyper Tech has been working for years on a new superconducting wire and developed one that operates well at higher temperatures,” Martens said.

The company now is able to make wire of magnesium dibromide three kilometers long—long enough to make a coil for the imaging magnet in an MRI.

Martens, as well as Robert Brown, Institute Professor and Distinguished University Professor of physics, and research associates Tanvir Baig and Mihai Cara are responsible for the physics, calculations, technical aspects and design on the two projects and offer students the opportunity to work with them.

“We’ll be developing a qualified workforce, training students in these new areas, who can step in and work in these industries,” Martens said.

Creating an optical data storage disc

Folio Photonics, a startup founded by Kenneth Singer, the Ambrose Swasey Professor of Physics, and Brent Valle, a postdoctoral scholar in physics, received a $100,000 grant toward making a prototype optical data storage disc that could solve dilemmas for small- and mid-sized companies.

Their layered design would hold one to two terabytes of data, or the equivalent of a 50 commercially available Blu-ray discs, and be cheaper and easier to use than traditional archival magnetic tapes or energy-wasting magnetic discs.

The company also just received a $25,000 grant from the Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network, a local nonprofit that offers engineering and manufacturing assistance.

“The combination of these two grants will provide resources and expertise that should move us well along the prototype disc development path,” Valle said.

Improving breast cancer testing

Anant Madabhushi, associate professor and director of the Center for Computational Imaging and Personalized Diagnostics in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, received a $50,000 grant to develop a fast and inexpensive test to predict whether women with early stage ER+ cancer, the most common form of breast cancer in the U.S., require only hormone therapy, or chemotherapy as well.

Currently, the most commonly used test is a gene-expression-based assay that requires a tissue sample to be shipped to California, requiring a two- to four-week wait for a response and a cost of up to $4,000, Madabhushi said.

Madabhushi’s center is applying big-data analysis tools to mine digital images of the cancer to find the patterns and cues that indicate whether the disease is aggressive and requires both therapies or is slower-moving and requires the milder therapy.

“We will be able to do this for any woman with early stage ER+ breast cancer, anywhere in the world,” Madabhushi said. “There would be little waiting, and because this is done electronically, our cost should be significantly lower. All we need is the image, which can be scanned from a biopsy slide, which is pretty standard around the world.”