Ellis Meng, an associate professor of biomedical and electrical engineering at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, stands at the bold crossroads of medical research. She seeks new ways to deliver and monitor drugs for patients through nanotechnology and wireless communication.
Through a grant from the U.S. Army Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center (TATRC) and Qualcomm Wireless Health, Meng is working on a system for chronic pain medication for Army veterans, ultimately allowing them to return home and to productive lives.
Ellis Meng: "We are working to break the mold . . . in terms of drug delivery — it doesn’t make sense to take a drug orally when a problem is very localized.”
“It is a challenge to monitor and control chronic pain in patients,” Meng said. “The patient often has to return to the doctor to adjust and assess the pain medication, and doctors need to ensure that pain medications are being delivered consistently and with the right dosage.”
Meng’s team is developing and testing an implanted drug delivery device connected to a wireless network by an external controller for remote monitoring and modification of drug dosage levels. The infusion pumps will allow physicians to track compliance and control of drug delivery regimens in patients remotely.
The challenge for Meng’s team is twofold: develop small, effective drug delivery systems and find ways for those systems to communicate wirelessly with health care teams. Current pumps used to administer drugs for chronic pain are the size of a hockey puck; Meng is developing pumps that are the size of three quarters stacked together — and they can be even smaller, if necessary.
The tiny pumps she is developing are more accurate and have a smaller footprint but similar capacities than traditional pumps. Meng’s goal is to revolutionize drug delivery by delivering the right dose at the right time and place so that patients can receive the maximum benefit without side effects.
The implications of Meng’s research extend well beyond chronic pain. The new medical frontier is moving toward targeted, specialized treatments for conditions ranging from eye disease to cancer to epilepsy. Her research could be used, for example, to deliver drugs directly to tumors for cancer patients or treatments for neurological disease that could avoid traditional and risky surgery.
“We are working to break the mold of what’s been done conventionally in terms of drug delivery — it doesn’t make sense to take a drug orally when a problem is very localized,” Meng said.
The TATRC/Qualcomm Wireless Health Innovation Challenge represents an important step for Meng and her colleagues in the ongoing quest to transform health care through engineering. “The challenge awardees are pioneering new breakthroughs in health science that could significantly benefit the U.S. military community,” said Don Jones, vice president of wireless health strategy and market development at Qualcomm Labs. “Qualcomm is pleased to help enable these important research projects, which align closely with our goal of speeding the diagnosis, treatment and self-management of health conditions via cellular wireless networks.”