Logo: University of Southern California

USC Wins Second ERC

USC is Awarded Its Second NSF Engineering Research Center

October 01, 2003 —

“Our very ambitious goal is to help the blind see, the paralyzed walk and to restore the function of memory.”
-- Dean C. L. Max Nikias

The intraocular retinal prosthesis consists of 16 electrodes arrayed on a 4-by-4 grid; these electrodes are stimulated by digitized images transmitted to the device from a camera mounted on a pair of glasses. The electrodes, in turn, stimulate the patient's remaining retinal neurons.
The National Science Foundation has awarded the University of Southern California $17 million to fund the new Biomimetic MicroElectronic Systems (BMES) Engineering Research Center. The new center, a collaboration between the School of Engineering and the Keck School of Medicine at USC will develop biologically-inspired implantable microdevices designed to replace damaged or diseased parts of the human body.

“Our very ambitious goal is to help the blind see, the paralyzed walk and to restore the function of memory,” said C. L. Max Nikias, dean of the School of Engineering.

With this award, USC becomes one of only four universities in the country – and the only one in California – to have two NSF Engineering Research Centers operating concurrently. (The others are at MIT, Georgia Tech and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.)

“This is a very broad interdisciplinary endeavor,” said Stephen J. Ryan, Dean of the Keck School of Medicine. “Not only was it a huge joint effort between the Keck School and Engineering, but Caltech and UC-Santa Cruz are contributing unique and significant expertise.

With more than 30 industrial partners, Nikias said that the BMES center will boost Southern California’s already healthy medical device industry and could move the region to the forefront of the growing biotechnology industry.

The new center will:

n Coordinate groundbreaking programs at USC, Caltech and UC Santa Cruz on the development of “biomimetic” devices designed to replace damaged or diseased systems in the human body;

n Support educational programs in local schools designed to help high school students prepare for careers in research, and work with other local colleges to develop job-training skills in the high-tech biotechnology industry; and

n Develop industry partnerships that will encourage the transfer of this technology to the marketplace.

Mark Humayun, a professor of ophthalmology and biomedical engineering and co-developer of a retinal implant that has received wide attention for its potential to restore sight, will direct the new center. Ryan said that Humayun’s “background as an M.D., a retinal surgeon and an engineer are illustrative of this entire collaboration.”

“The work of this center will extend the microelectronics revolution in medicine – which includes such implanted devices as the pacemaker and the cochlear implant – to the realm of the central nervous system,” said Humayun. “We’re going to implant into people devices that will communicate with tissue and treat incurable diseases such as blindness, paralysis and memory loss.”

The NSF grant is expected to total $34 million over 10 years (in two $17 million installments), which will enable the integration of three separate biomedical research programs at USC, each of which is focused on developing electronic replacements for lost neural function. The grant will also fund allied programs based at Caltech and University of California, Santa Cruz.

Through its interaction with industrial partners, the new center is expected to generate roughly $35 million over the initial term of the grant and could bring in more than $80 million in the next decade, according to Nikias. He will jointly head the center’s executive board with Ryan, who is also the university’s senior vice president for medical affairs.

Gerald Loeb, a professor of biomedical engineering who heads a research program that has produced a neuromuscular implant called the BION™, will be the center’s deputy director. Roberta Diaz Brinton, professor of molecular pharmacology and toxicology in the USC School of Pharmacy, will direct the program’s education and outreach to Los Angeles-area schools and colleges.

A director of industrial affairs, to be named later, will complete the leadership team.

Three projects, or “testbeds,” make up the heart of the BMES center:

• Intraocular Retinal Prosthesis: A team led by Humayun and James Weiland of the Keck School is working to develop an intraocular retinal prosthesis, which Humayun co-created. The device has already provided a semblance of sight to three patients in early-stage clinical trials.

The prosthesis works by taking over the job of cells damaged by degenerative eye diseases such as retinitis pigmentosa or macular degeneration. The electrodes in the array are stimulated by an incoming image and 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.

Humayun’s device is loosely based on the cochlear implant, which has restored hearing to more than 100,000 people. As with the cochlear implant, the retinal prosthesis uses a limited number of electrodes – 16 in its current incarnation – to replace a large number of nerve fibers.

• Neuromuscular Prosthesis: Gerald Loeb, a physician who helped develop the cochlear implant, is now conducting clinical trials of the BION™, an injectable neuromuscular stimulator.

The BION – short for bionic neuron – is the length of two grains of rice.

During the past three years, Loeb has injected 32 BIONs into the paralyzed muscles of about 20 patients in the U.S., Canada and Italy to treat disorders ranging from stroke to arthritis.

The BIONs re-animate paralyzed muscles through electrical stimulation. The next generation model, currently under development, will sense muscle length, limb acceleration and bioelectric potentials for better control of the electrical simulation.

• Cortical Prosthesis: Theodore Berger, professor of biomedical engineering and director of the School of Engineering’s Center for Neural Engineering, heads a project to create a silicon chip implant that would take over the function of neurons lost to disease or injury.

Specifically, Berger and his team are probing the secrets of the hippocampus, a cashew-shaped portion of the brain that plays a crucial role in learning and memory.

His team is mathematically modeling the hippocampus’ electrical signals and designing chips to mimic the function of those neurons. The team has made chips that could replace about 20 neurons, and is designing devices that would fill in for up to 10,000 neurons.

Berger is still some distance from implanting one of his chips in a human, but the idea of doing so is not nearly as remote as it once seemed.

The concept behind the new USC center is to use discoveries in one area of science to accelerate research in another. For example, Berger said, his research may also apply to the retinal prosthesis and BION projects.

“This is a critical time for the convergence of all these disciplines, to finally be able to cross the threshold and produce these kinds of medical devices,” Berger said. “These are things that will reach out to the public and change lives.”

Loeb said USC researchers are concentrating on the actual application of the technologies and their assembly into functional prosthetics.

“One of the things we’re trying to take advantage of is the very strong industry in Southern California in medical devices and diagnostics,” he said.

The National Science Foundation is a federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering.

Its Engineering Research Centers program provides opportunities for interdisciplinary teams from government, industry and universities to collaborate on crucial research in emerging technologies and to train the next generation of engineers.

"The ERCs advance knowledge and develop new technologies to transform U.S. industry. The centers foster collaboration among researchers from many disciplines and provide an educational and research environment that prepares a new generation of engineering leaders", said John Brighton, Assistant Director for Engineering at NSF.

As USC’s second Engineering Research Center, the new BMES center joins the Integrated Media Systems Center – established in the School of Engineering in 1996 and funded through 2007.

“NSF’s Engineering Research Center program provides the resources for us to continue doing fundamental, long-term research, move new technology into the marketplace and encourage and train young people to enter both research and industry programs,” said School of Engineering dean C. L. Max Nikias, founding director of the IMSC.

The IMSC, the only national engineering research center to focus on multimedia, has developed unique immersive technologies, including 3-D face modeling and animation; “immersivision” panoramic video technology; and immersive audio. Major progress is also being made in haptics, or touch-related technologies, data compression and wireless communications.

IMSC has 51patent filings, six issued patents, more than 75 commercial licenses and technology transfers and nine small company spin-offs.

Links to News Stories about the BMES Center