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Biomimetics—A Cure for the Incurable?

Originally Published MPMN November 2003

EDITOR'S PAGE

Biomimetics--A Cure for the Incurable?


Biomimetics. Never heard of it? You will soon. Biomimetics is the science of using microelectronics to mimic biological systems. It holds great promise for now-incurable diseases. Products based on it will one day enable implantable and portable devices that can treat such conditions as blindness, loss of neuromuscular control, paralysis, and brain injury. 
In recognition of the importance of developing this field, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has provided a grant totaling more than $34 million over two five-year terms. The grant will fund a center devoted to applying biomimetics to create medical devices. 

Medical device manufacturers will play a big part in developing these products. The Center for Biomimetic MicroElectronic Systems (BMES) will involve not only researchers, but also more than 30 medical industry partners. The center's interaction with industrial partners is expected to generate $35 million in revenue over the five-year term of the grant. Some sources say it could bring in more than $80 million in the next decade. 

The creation of BMES is important for several reasons. It will serve to advance this remarkable technology and potentially improve the quality of life of many people. Also, it "provides an educational and research environment that prepares a new generation of engineering leaders," says Dr. John Brighton, assistant director for engineering at NSF.

BMES will be located at the University of Southern California. It will operate in partnership with the California Institute of Technology and the University of California at Santa Cruz, as well as with industry partners. "One of the things we're trying to take advantage of is the very strong industry in Southern California in medical devices and diagnostics," says Gerald Loeb. A professor of biomedical engineering, Loeb is a physician who helped develop the cochlear implant. He will be the center's deputy director.

The researchers will focus on mixed-signal systems on a chip, power and data management, intelligent analog circuits, and interface technology at the nano- and microscales to integrate microelectronic systems with neurons. They will also create new materials designed to prevent rejection when implanted in the body.

A retinal prosthesis may provide artificial vision to people who have lost their sight due to diseases affecting the retina. How? By taking over the job of cells damaged by conditions such as retinitis pigmentosa. The electrodes in the array are stimulated by an incoming image. They in turn stimulate the patient's remaining retinal cells. The information travels via the optic nerve to the vision centers of the brain to create a representation of the image. Just a few electrodes are used to replace a large number of nerve fibers.

Another possible use for biomimetics that BMES will be focusing on is a cortical prosthesis. This silicon chip could be implanted into the brain to restore cognitive functions lost due to stroke or other causes. 

And finally, the center will be working on a neuromuscular prosthesis called BION. This device may be able to restore movement into a paralyzed limb. It is showing some promise. During the past three years BION has been inserted into the paralyzed muscles of 20 patients. It is meant to treat disorders ranging from stroke to arthritis. 

BMES is truly a collaborative effort and shows how industry and research can work together to create the next generation of medical devices.

Susan Wallace
, Managing Editor

Copyright ©2003 Medical Product Manufacturing News

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