New Engineering Center Highlights Biomimetic Systems

by James Cavuoto, editor

One of the most significant trends in the neurotechnology field in recent years has been the development of “biomimetic” electronic systems that emulate the function of biological neural systems. Such an approach not only offers the promise of building a new generation of neural prostheses, neurosensors, and other devices, it also opens the possibility of creating new types of commercial, industrial, and computational devices that meld biological processes with electronic components.

The area of biomimetic engineering took a dramatic step forward recently with the opening of a National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center devoted to Biomimetic Microelectronic Systems (BMES). The BMES center is located at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, and is a team effort involving USC, California Institute of Technology, University of California, Santa Cruz, and the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. The team received $17 million in funding from the NSF last year with initial goals to produce devices to treat blindness, paralysis, and cognitive impairment. The award covers the first five years of a 10 year program, with the option of another $17 million award to follow.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this new research center is its mission to marry academic research with commercial development. Indeed, in the few months since its inception, the BMES center has attracted the interest of over 30 commercial firms in fields ranging from medical devices and biotechnology to information processing and electronic imaging.

Director of the center is Mark Humayun, a professor of biomedical engineering and ophthalmology at USC. Humayun is one of the researchers who implanted a retinal prosthesis developed by Second Sight llc in several blind individuals in the last year.

Gerald Loeb, also a professor of biomedical engineering at USC, serves as deputy director of the new center. Loeb heads up the neuromuscular rehabilitation effort at the center. The third key player at the center is Theodore Berger, a biomedical engineering professor at USC who is developing a hippocampus prosthesis that may eventually help restore the ability to store new memories in individuals with central nervous system disorders.

Wolfgang Fink, an adjunct professor of physics at Caltech, is leading the development of MEMS devices for the retinal prosthesis test bed. Michael Isaacson, a professor of optoelectronics at University of California, Santa Cruz, is responsible for interface technology between microelectronic devices and biological tissue. And Howard Phillips, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at UNCC, directs the center’s commercialization effort.

One of the strengths of the BMES center is its ability to draw from other institutions and organizations besides the three universities at the core of the center. For example, five U.S. Department of Energy Laboratories, including Oak Ridge, Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, Sandia, and Argonne National Laboratories, are helping Humayun’s team at the Doheny Eye Institute in the development of a retinal prosthesis, each with expertise in key areas like microelectronics, MEMS, imaging, biosensors and bioactuators, surface modification, drug delivery, and packaging.

The Alfred Mann Institute at USC lends expertise and experience in commercialization of medical devices in general, and neuromuscular stimulation with BION microstimulators in particular. And the center is counting on its industrial partners to deliver even more technology resources, as well as funding. Industrial advisory board members pay a $50,000 annual fee for membership in the center, which grants them priority in accessing the center’s researchers and intellectual property. Smaller firms have an option to participate at a lower level of membership and financial support.

Several commercial microelectrontics firms have already signed on, or indicated their intention to, including Bausch & Lomb, Texas Instruments, IBM, and HP. Among the neurotechnology firms who have expressed interest in the center are Advanced Bionics, Quallion, Second Sight, ANS, and Tensor Biosciences.



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