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Illustration of how smart wristband will work

Engineers receive $1 million for implantable system to detect lung cancer

By CORY NEALON

Published September 11, 2017

“You can think of the sensor as a tiny tattoo — it won’t move — that will be placed on a blood vessel just under your skin near your wrist.”
Wayne Bacon, president and CEO
Garwood Medical Devices

Future medical diagnostic tools may get under your skin — literally.

An interdisciplinary team of UB engineers, working with Intel Corp. and Garwood Medical Devices, has received a $1 million National Science Foundation grant to develop technology that combines implantable sensors, wearable devices and software to better identify and monitor serious illnesses such as lung cancer.

The project aims to greatly increase the capabilities of wearable devices, which are mostly used to check heart rate, calories burned and other relatively simple measurements.

“Existing wearables are only able to measure a few parameters,” says Josep Jornet, UB assistant professor of electrical engineering and the grant’s principal investigator. “We are developing an integrated system that will provide a faster and more accurate way to diagnose and monitor diseases than conventional technologies by leveraging the state-of-the-art in nanobiophotonics and wireless communications.”

To create the system, Jornet assembled a team of UB faculty members who study, among other things, electrical engineering, biomedical engineering, orthopedics, and chemical and biological engineering.

In addition to Intel and Buffalo-based Garwood Medical Devices, researchers from Roswell Park Cancer Institute are serving as consultants.

The idea of implanting a chip into one’s skin may not be for everyone; however, for people who have an increased likelihood of developing a particular disease — for example, due to family history or their surrounding environment — a faster and more accurate way to spot that disease could be a lifesaver, Jornet says.

The team is developing an implantable sensor made mostly of gold that is 10 micrometers squared. The average human hair is 100 micrometers wide.

“You can think of the sensor as a tiny tattoo — it won’t move — that will be placed on a blood vessel just under your skin near your wrist,” says Wayne Bacon, president and CEO of Garwood Medical Devices.

The sensor, which will be designed to detect lung cancer biomarkers in blood, will only collect data when triggered by light emitted by a network of nanophotonic devices integrated in a smart wristband the team is also developing. The wristband will then collect from the sensor data that it will send via Bluetooth to a smartphone or computer.

To make this happen, software algorithms that ensure the accuracy and safety of the system are needed. The software also must secure confidential medical information as it is transmitted wirelessly.

The project, which began Sept. 1, will have implications beyond lung cancer detection. Theoretically, the system could be altered to detect other diseases with biomarkers found in blood. It also could help monitor illnesses, providing doctors with more accurate and robust data on the progression of diseases. For patients, it could reduce the need to travel to and from the doctor’s office or clinic.

The team is planning a series of tests to study how the sensor works in blood samples of lung cancer patients. Within three years, it plans to test the entire system in cadavers.

In addition to Jornet, the following UB faculty members are working on the project: Mark Ehrensberger, assistant professor of biomedical engineering and director of UB’s Kenneth A. Krackow MD  Orthopaedic Research Laboratory; Edward P. Furlani, professor of chemical and biological engineering, and electrical engineering; Qiaoqiang Gan, associate professor of electrical engineering; Zhi Sun, assistant professor of electrical engineering; and Yun Wu, assistant professor of biomedical engineering. Former UB faculty member Liang Feng, now a University of Pennsylvania faculty member, is also on the team.