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ENG/EFRI FY 2009 Awards Announcement

BioSensing and BioActuation

The Office of Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation (EFRI) awarded 20 grants in FY 2009, including the following 12 on the topic of BioSensing and BioActuation: Interface of Living and Engineering Systems (BSBA):

Shedding light on cancer’s origins
The project “Photonic Technique for Sensing and Understanding Subcellular Structures at Nanoscale” (0937987) will be led by Vadim Backman, in collaboration with colleagues Hemant K. Roy and Igal Szleifer, all from Northwestern University.

The researchers aim to develop a technique using light to sense the complexity of cellular architecture at the nanoscale, and they will use it to understand changes in cell structures due to cancer and their role in cancer progression. They previously found that disorder of cell nanoarchitecture is one of the earliest events in the formation of cancer, and this disorder appeared not only in tumor cells but throughout the epithelium of the entire organ. A non-invasive technique that works on accessible tissues could enable the ambitious goal of population-wide screening for a wide range of major cancers.

Creating intelligent eyes
The project “Biology Inspired Intelligent Micro Optical Imaging Systems” (0937847) will be led by Hongrui Jiang of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He will collaborate with Li Zhang and James Ver Hoeve, also at Wisconsin; Christopher Murphy of the University of California, Davis; and John Rogers of the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign.

Inspired by six types of natural eyes, the researchers seek to incorporate the useful elements of natural visual systems into integrated, intelligent, micro imaging systems without anatomic and physiological constraints. They anticipate that the new system will surpass what is possible in natural and state-of-the-art engineered systems, both in terms of imaging performance and brain-like intelligent control. If the team can overcome challenges in fabrication, imaging, power consumption, and data processing, the research could impact many technologies, including tools for endoscopic surgery, optics and electronics, cameras, and artificial vision for robots and people.

Reading and writing brain information
The project “Integration of Dynamic Sensing and Actuating of Neural Microcircuits” (0937848) will be led by Arto V. Nurmikko of Brown University, in collaboration with Brown researchers Rebecca Burwell, Barry Connors, Leigh Hochberg, and Shouheng Sun.

Working memory function in the brain is closely associated with several neurological diseases and has implications for many brain-like engineered systems. This project will generate new understanding of working memory through the study of brain microcircuits and their information processing functions with a new generation of biosensing (recording) and actuation (stimulation) techniques. Researchers will develop microtools to simultaneously achieve both neural recording and neural stimulation for multiple neurons, and ultimately for multiple brain sites. They will also investigate how microscale activities relate to the dynamics of information processing in the prefrontal cortex.

A functional contact lens
The project “Second Window” (0937710) will be led by Babak A. Parviz, in collaboration with Brian Otis, Buddy D. Ratner, and Tueng Shen, all from the University of Washington in Seattle.

The team’s objective is to design, build, and test a fundamentally new, non-invasive, and intelligent interface with the human body for improving health. Their approach is to construct a functional contact lens that incorporates electronic biosensors and continuously monitors biomarkers on the surface of the eye. The contact lens will harvest energy, control and read sensors, and convey the collected information to the outside world. The data produced could help detect and monitor conditions such as diabetes (via glucose detection), heart attack (lactate detection), or bacterial infection (biofilm detection), which can lead to blindness.

Sensing immune cells
The project “Novel Microsystems for Manipulation and Analysis of Immune Cells” (0937997) will be led by Alexander Revzin of the University of California, Davis, in collaboration with Tingrui Pan and Judy Van de Water of UC Davis, and with Hsueh-Chia Chang of the University of Notre Dame.

Immune cells may be used to gain information for diagnosing infections, malignancies, and autoimmune disorders, as well as to enhance understanding of disease progression. Analyzing some types of immune cells has presented a challenge, because they are distinguishable only by the proteins they produce. This research team aims to develop novel microsystems with biosensors having new capabilities for analyzing and manipulating immune cells. The systems will monitor production of secreted proteins at the single-cell level in real time, and they will identify immune cells based on the secreted product and then sort and release these cells. The researchers will use the new microsystems to search for links between immune function and autism.

Creating an image with chemicals
The project “Nanoactuation and Sensing of Neural Function for Engineering Future Biomimetic Retinal Implants and Therapies” (0938072) will be led by Laxman Saggere, with collaboration from David R. Pepperberg, Haohua Qian, and Scott Shippy, all from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

In a new approach to restoring sight lost to retinal degenerative diseases, the team will investigate chemically-based interfaces for retinal prostheses. Inspired by nature’s complex mechanism of converting visual information into chemical signals through a chemical synapse, the researchers’ long-range research vision is a chemically based biomimetic retinal implant that restores lost functionality by converting light falling on the retina into a spatially distributed chemical signal that would stimulate the surviving retinal neurons. The team will investigate methods of stimulating the retina using native neurotransmitters and synthetic biomolecules, so that the retina produces a physiologic response.

Touch-sensitive artificial skin
The project “Bio-Inspired Arrays of Haircell Sensors for Artificial Glabrous and Hairy Skin” (0938007) will be led by Chang Liu of Northwestern University. He will collaborate with Mitra Hartmann and Alan Kadish from Northwestern, and Douglas L. Jones from the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign.

The project’s overarching objective is to develop a flexible, sensing skin to discern contact, temperature, and other aspects of their environment. The researchers will exploit biologically inspired principles to achieve high sensitivity, a wide dynamic range, and advanced, integrated, and highly-efficient processing of sensor data. They plan to test their tactile sensors and algorithms by creating smart, sensorized catheter tips for cardiac surgery procedures (such as tissue ablation, internal space mapping, and electrocardiogram recording), with the goal of increasing accuracy, reliability, and speed.

Controlling fluids, insect-style
The project “Complex Microsystem Networks Inspired by Internal Insect Physiology” (0938047) will be led by John Socha of Virginia Tech, in collaboration with Rafael V. Davalos, Raffaella De Vita, and Anne Staples of Virginia Tech, and with Jon F. Harrison of Arizona State University.

Insects efficiently manage internal fluid flow using flexible tissues, simple actuation, and passive, distributed control — methods that differ from current engineering approaches. The objective of this research is to better understand how insects produce and control internal flows and to use this knowledge to create new, highly efficient fluid transport systems. Researchers will image internal insect dynamics, characterize insect vessel material, create and test new fluid mechanics models, and develop advanced micromechanical fabrication technologies. Findings from this research have the potential to change the paradigm for flow delivery and regulation in small-scale systems, which may lead to new bioengineered tissues and energy-efficient, biomedically-implantable microdevices.

Fabricating fibers as powerful as butterfly proboscises
The project “Multifunctional Materials and Devices for Distributed Actuation and Sensing” (0937985) will be led by Konstantin Kornev, in collaboration with Peter H. Adler , Kenneth A. Christensen, Richard E. Groff, and Alexey A. Vertegel, all from Clemson University.

Butterflies and moths, constituting the order Lepidoptera, have inspired decades of engineering research in aerodynamics, optics, and navigation. This project will explore the engineering behind the lepidopteran proboscis — the protruding mouth part that resembles a flexible drinking straw. New understanding of the lepidopteran fluidic system will enable the formulation of fundamental and transformative principles of fiber-based microfluidics. The team will use these principles in the design, fabrication, and manipulation of a new class of fiber-based devices capable of transporting and probing a previously impossible range of liquids.

Designing artificial DNA
The project “Engineering Synthetic Mimics of DNA-Protein Recognition Systems” (0938019) will be led by Ronald G. Larson, in collaboration with James R. Baker, Lingjie J. Guo, Nicholas A. Kotov, and Nils G. Walter, all from the University of Michigan.

Proteins transcribe DNA into RNA, regulate genes, and replicate DNA, all with remarkable efficiency and precision. To do so, proteins seek out and bind firmly to DNA only where regions of the protein precisely complement regions of the DNA. This research is an attempt to harness this mechanism within synthetic systems, with nanowires acting as DNA and nanoparticles acting as proteins. Once the researchers understand how to bind “nanoparticle proteins” to specific sites along the “nanowire DNA,” they will engineer the system to drive reactions in the first step towards precise nano-actuation. This work may lay the foundation for the diagnosis, repair, and ultimately self-fabrication of nanomaterials and nanocircuitry.

Patterning smarter materials after fish
The project “Multifunctional Materials Exhibiting Distributed Actuation, Sensing, and Control: Uncovering the Hierarchical Control of Fish for Developing Smarter Materials” (0938043) will be led by Michael Philen of Virginia Tech. He will collaborate with Harry C. Dorn and Donald J. Leo from Virginia Tech, George V. Lauder from Harvard University, and James Tangorra from Drexel University.

Because of their neuro-musculo-skeletal structure, fish have remarkable maneuvering skills and the extraordinary ability to sense small changes in water flow, which enables them to locate and track prey, move in coordinated schools, obtain feedback control for locomotion, and understand their environment. This research aims to identify and theoretically describe the computational processing performed at the local sensory level to activate muscles and control vertebral stiffness along the tail of fish as they move.
The researchers will develop advanced multifunctional materials to create an intelligent system with distributed sensing and control strategies that mimic those of real fish.

Plant-inspired adaptive structures
The project “Learning from Plants: Bio-inspired Multi-functional Adaptive Structural Systems” (0937323) will be led by Kon-Well Wang of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, in collaboration with Michael Mayer and Erik Nielsen of the University of Michigan, and with Charles Bakis and Christopher Rahn of Penn State University.

The researchers will explore new ideas inspired by the mechanical, chemical, and electrical properties of plant cells. They will characterize how plant cells vary hydrostatic pressure to achieve rapid motion (as exhibited by the Venus flytrap), sense and adapt to the direction and magnitude of external loads and damage, and reconfigure or heal themselves through growth. This understanding will enable the team to develop a microstructure having similar, concurrent abilities. Their ultimate goal is to build such microstructures into a circulatory network for large-scale actuation and structural control, energy harvesting, thermal management, and self-healing.


- Cecile J. Gonzalez, NSF, -