New ‘E-Dermis’ Brings Sense of Touch, Pain to Prosthetic Hands
Amputees often experience the sensation of a “phantom limb”—a feeling that a missing body part is still there.
That sensory illusion is closer to becoming a reality thanks to a team of engineers at the Johns Hopkins University that has created an electronic skin. When layered on top of prosthetic hands, this e-dermis brings back a real sense of touch through the fingertips.
“After many years, I felt my hand, as if a hollow shell got filled with life again,” says the anonymous amputee who served as the team’s principal volunteer tester.
Made of fabric and rubber laced with sensors to mimic nerve endings, e-dermis recreates a sense of touch as well as pain by sensing stimuli and relaying the impulses back to the peripheral nerves.
“We’ve made a sensor that goes over the fingertips of a prosthetic hand and acts like your own skin would,” says Luke Osborn, a graduate student in biomedical engineering. “It’s inspired by what is happening in human biology, with receptors for both touch and pain.
“This is interesting and new,” Osborn said, “because now we can have a prosthetic hand that is already on the market and fit it with an e-dermis that can tell the wearer whether he or she is picking up something that is round or whether it has sharp points.”
The work – published June 20 in the journal Science Robotics – shows it is possible to restore a range of natural, touch-based feelings to amputees who use prosthetic limbs. The ability to detect pain could be useful, for instance, not only in prosthetic hands but also in lower limb prostheses, alerting the user to potential damage to the device.
Human skin contains a complex network of receptors that relay a variety of sensations to the brain. This network provided a biological template for the research team, which includes members from the Johns Hopkins departments of Biomedical Engineering, Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Neurology, and from the Singapore Institute of Neurotechnology.
Bringing a more human touch to modern prosthetic designs is critical, especially when it comes to incorporating the ability to feel pain, Osborn says.
“Pain is, of course, unpleasant, but it’s also an essential, protective sense of touch that is lacking in the prostheses that are currently available to amputees,” he says. “Advances in prosthesis designs and control mechanisms can aid an amputee’s ability to regain lost function, but they often lack meaningful, tactile feedback or perception.”
That is where the e-dermis comes in, conveying information to the amputee by stimulating peripheral nerves in the arm, making the so-called phantom limb come to life. The e-dermis device does this by electrically stimulating the amputee’s nerves in a non-invasive way, through the skin, says the paper’s senior author, Nitish Thakor, a professor of biomedical engineering and director of the Biomedical Instrumentation and Neuroengineering Laboratory at Johns Hopkins.
“For the first time, a prosthesis can provide a range of perceptions, from fine touch to noxious to an amputee, making it more like a human hand,” says Thakor, co-founder of Infinite Biomedical Technologies, the Baltimore-based company that provided the prosthetic hardware used in the study.
Inspired by human biology, the e-dermis enables its user to sense a continuous spectrum of tactile perceptions, from light touch to noxious or painful stimulus. The team created a “neuromorphic model” mimicking the touch and pain receptors of the human nervous system, allowing the e-dermis to electronically encode sensations just as the receptors in the skin would. Tracking brain activity via electroencephalography, or EEG, the team determined that the test subject was able to perceive these sensations in his phantom hand.
The researchers then connected the e-dermis output to the volunteer by using a noninvasive method known as transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, or TENS. In a pain-detection task, the team determined that the test subject and the prosthesis were able to experience a natural, reflexive reaction to both pain while touching a pointed object and non-pain when touching a round object.
The e-dermis is not sensitive to temperature—for this study, the team focused on detecting object curvature (for touch and shape perception) and sharpness (for pain perception). The e-dermis technology could be used to make robotic systems more human, and it could also be used to expand or extend to astronaut gloves and space suits, Osborn says.
The researchers plan to further develop the technology and better understand how to provide meaningful sensory information to amputees in the hopes of making the system ready for widespread patient use.
Johns Hopkins is a pioneer in the field of upper limb dexterous prostheses. More than a decade ago, the university’s Applied Physics Laboratory led the development of the advanced Modular Prosthetic Limb, which an amputee patient controls with the muscles and nerves that once controlled his or her real arm or hand.
In addition to the funding from Space@Hopkins, which fosters space-related collaboration across the university’s divisions, the team also received grants from the Applied Physics Laboratory Graduate Fellowship Program and the Neuroengineering Training Initiative through the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering through the National Institutes of Health under grant T32EB003383.
The e-dermis was tested over the course of one year on an amputee who volunteered in the Neuroengineering Laboratory at Johns Hopkins. The subject frequently repeated the testing to demonstrate consistent sensory perceptions via the e-dermis. The team has worked with four other amputee volunteers in other experiments to provide sensory feedback.
Note: The research protocol used in the study does not allow identification of the amputee volunteers.
June 18, 2018
Johns Hopkins team takes second place in national BMEidea competition
A team of five Johns Hopkins University biomedical engineering graduate students earned second place at the national BMEidea competition held last week in New York City, besting more than 50 teams from universities around the country with their idea for a system that anticipates and reduces the risk of a collapsed lung during lung biopsy surgery.
Pneumothorax, also known as a collapsed lung, is one of the most frequent complications that can occur during a CT-guided lung biopsy. The condition occurs when air leaks in the space between the chest wall and lung, and it can turn an outpatient procedure into a multi-day hospital stay. Patients suffering from this complication often must be connected to chest drains and vacuums to withdraw excess air.
Members of team PneumoNIX determined that the best approach for preventing collapsed lung was to block all sources of air, including inside of the lung and the external environment. Their medical device achieves this while also reducing the risk of complications.
“This was the culmination of a year of work from Hopkins faculty, clinicians, our team of engineers, and a great group of external mentors,” says team member Edward Ruppel. “We are very proud to be solving an unmet clinical need with a device that we hope to commercialize.”
The PneumoNIX team, all of whom graduated with their master’s degrees in biomedical engineering in May, also includes Andrew Eisenthal, Sabrina Liu, Shashwat Gupta, and Wade Schutte. Ashish Nimgaonkar, Clifford Weiss, and Robert Liddell, of the Johns Hopkins of School of Medicine, served as clinical advisers. The team was formed in JHU’s Center for Bioengineering Innovation and Design, which operates within the Johns Hopkins Department of Biomedical Engineering, shared by the university’s School of Medicine and Whiting School of Engineering.
The team plans to use its $5,000 prize toward intellectual property protection and to further develop the device. Members hope to raise the next round of investment and provide statistically significant data for licensing agreements.
The BMEidea competition challenges students to pioneer a health-related technology that addresses a real clinical need. Teams are judged on technical, economic, and regulatory feasibility; contribution to human health and quality of life; technological innovation; and potential for commercialization.
Team PneumoNIX also won the Johns Hopkins University Business Plan competition in the Medical Technology and Life Sciences division on April 30.
– Sarah Tarney
June 15, 2018
Grant Funds Collaborative Project to Find New Treatments for Liver Cancer
Researchers with the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center and the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine received a $3 million grant to use computational modeling and software to understand biological data, in combination with unique in vitro and animal studies, to better treat liver cancer.
The project, “Integrating bioinformatics into multiscale models for hepatocellular carcinoma,” is led by Elana Fertig, Ph.D., assistant professor of oncology and assistant director of The Research Program in Quantitative Sciences, Aleksander Popel, Ph.D., director of the Systems Biology Laboratory and professor of biomedical engineering, oncology, and medicine, Andrew Ewald, Ph.D., professor of cell biology, oncology, and biomedical engineering, and Phuoc Tran, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of radiation oncology and molecular radiation sciences, oncology and urology.
“This is an unprecedented combination of four disciplines in an integrative and interactive way,” Popel said. “In this project, we hope to better identify new targets for treatment of liver cancer and gain an improved understanding on how current therapies are working.”
The five-year grant was awarded by the National Cancer Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, in April 2018.
Hepatocellular carcinoma, or liver cancer, occurs when a tumor grows on the liver. It is responsible for over 12,000 deaths per year in the United States, making it one of the most common cancers in adults.
The research team is looking into new computational techniques to build models that will predict therapeutic responses to liver cancer, addressing a dire and unmet need to improve treatment. The data for the models will use information about molecules, cells, tumors, and organs learned from state-of-the-art 3D in vitro models and in vivo animal models of hepatocellular carcinoma.
The proposal will result in new algorithms for predictive computational modeling of therapeutic response in hepatocellular carcinoma. The resulting computational algorithms will address the challenge of molecular alterations that occur on a different time scale than cellular changes in different areas of study.
Work is already underway on the project to help clinicians find new ways to further develop treatment options.
June 13, 2018
Thirty interdisciplinary research teams receive Johns Hopkins Discovery Awards
Altogether, the winning project teams—chosen from 190 proposals—include 108 individuals representing 11 Johns Hopkins entities. Notably, the partnerships engage the University Libraries and Museums for the first time in the program’s four award cycles. They are joined this year by all 10 university divisions.
“This year’s proposals attested to the intellectual creativity and collaborative spirit of our university,” says Ronald J. Daniels, president of Johns Hopkins University. “With these awards, faculty will have the freedom to pursue new avenues for discovery with colleagues across our community, and to take up the most pressing questions we face as a society.”
The Discovery Awards are intended to spark new interactions among investigators across the university rather than to support established projects. Teams can apply for up to $100,000 to explore a new area of collaborative work with special emphasis on preparing for an externally funded large-scale grant or cooperative agreement.
Projects that involve faculty within the Department of Biomedical Engineering include:
A Computational Psychiatry Approach to Investigate Effort Valuation in Major Depressive Disorder – Fernando Goes (Medicine), Vikram Chib (Medicine) & Peter Zandi (Public Health)
A Dynamical Systems Approach to Understanding the Neural Computations Underlying our Sense of Direction – Kathleen Cullen (Medicine), James Knierim (Arts & Sciences) & Kechen Zhang (Medicine)
Elucidating the Mechanism of Nucleosome Disruption by a Pioneer Transcription Factor – Carl Wu (Arts & Sciences), Greg Bowman (Arts & Sciences) & Taekjip Ha (Medicine)
Novel Methods for Non-Invasive Assessment of Myocardial Fibrosis Complexity and Disorganization to Predict Ventricular Arrhythmias – Jonathan Chrispin (Medicine), Katherine Wu (Medicine), Mauro Maggioni (Engineering), Steven Jones (Medicine), David Okada (Medicine) & Natalia Trayanova (Engineering)
Targeting Collective Invasion in Pancreatic Ductal Adenocarcinoma – Laura Wood (Medicine) & Joel Bader (Engineering)
Johns Hopkins has launched an interdisciplinary institute aimed at developing the mathematical theories that will hasten the analysis of the massive amounts of data being used to study everything from the inner workings of the human cell to the structure of the universe.
The Johns Hopkins Mathematical Institute for Data Science, or MINDS, brings together a core of 10 researchers and a dozen others working at the intersection of mathematics, statistics, and theoretical computer science. The group is working to establish the fundamental principles that make it possible to analyze and interpret massive amounts of high-dimensional, complex data.
“MINDS is the place where you go if you have large data sets and need theory and algorithms to analyze them,” says MINDS Director René Vidal, an expert in machine learning, computer vision, and biomedical imaging who also directs the Vision, Dynamics and Learning Lab.
Vidal, professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, says this research will get at the mathematical quandary at the heart of artificial intelligence’s deep learning, which he describes as something of a “black box” that works via trial and error. Computer algorithms are making giant leaps in accuracy with tasks such as identifying a human face (think Facebook tagging), but these improvements are not clearly understood because of the lack of an underlying theory. “But once you understand the inner workings of the mechanics, then you can make improvements in performance and robustness,” Vidal says.
Says Ed Schlesinger, dean of the Whiting School, “MINDS enables us to bring together the many researchers across the institutions focused on the theoretical foundations of data science, thus developing the mathematical foundations that ensure that algorithms, methodologies, and the conclusions drawn are correct, in a mathematically rigorous sense.”
MINDS hosted its first symposium in November; a second is planned for fall 2018.
— Mary Beth Regan
June 1, 2018
Hopkins BME student among 50 nationwide to earn Astronaut Scholarship
Johns Hopkins undergraduate student, Vinay Ayyappan, is among 50 individuals from 36 U.S. universities to earn an Astronaut Scholarship in recognition of their academic merit and promise in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics.
Established in 1984, the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation supports students who pursue scientific education to keep America a leader in technology. The scholarship was founded by a group of astronauts—Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Walter Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton—who were test pilots when NASA recruited them for space missions in 1959.
Ayyappan, a rising junior at Hopkins, first became interested in a career in science and medicine in high school, when two of his classmates and a teacher—Ayyappan’s mentor—were diagnosed with and eventually died from glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer.
“That was when I realized that I could apply my love of science and harness it to make an impact in an area of great personal significance to me,” Ayyappan says. “The area of cancer metabolism is definitely one of real interest to the scientific community, and it’s one that I aim to be a part of for a very, very long time.”
At Hopkins, Ayyappan, a biomedical engineering major, has worked on the molecular imaging of cancer and its metabolism of different chemical compounds such as creatine. He’s worked with Kristine Glunde, a professor of radiology at the School of Medicine, and he’s been a part of engineering teams developing biomedical devices that improve breast biopsy procedures in low-resource settings and that detect malfunctions in certain types of treatment for hydrocephalus.
“Ultimately my goal is to pursue an MD/Phd, and I have ambitions to continue my research not just during my time at Hopkins but into my graduate studies and my career as well,” Ayyappan says.
A common technology in the operating theater are imaging devices called mobile C-arms: large, C-shaped devices with an X-ray source on one end and a detector on the other. The arm is positioned beside the OR table, providing high-resolution images of the patient, which surgeons and interventional radiologists use to navigate to their targets. High-tech C-arms developed in recent years allow 3-D imaging but still cannot visualize soft tissue.
“It’s difficult to approach a tumor and avoid normal tissue, nerves, and blood vessels,” Siewerdsen says. “Also, it’s hard to detect complications, like hemorrhage.”
He has led work to develop the first mobile C-arms for high-quality 3-D imaging of soft tissues. His team did this by converting a C-arm into a computed tomography system. Conventional CT scanners are large machines that spin quickly around a patient and combine x-ray projections taken from all the angles to reconstruct a 3-D image.
To impart this ability to a mobile C-arm, Siewerdsen began by motorizing it to rotate around the patient. They also changed the X-ray detector with a high-quality digital detector for cone beam CT—a method for 3-D imaging that uses a low-power fluoroscopic x-ray beam and only needs to rotate around the patient once.
Some resulting challenges: The low-power signal gives “noisy” images. And involuntary patient motion can cause distortions and streaks. To tackle these issues, Siewerdsen teamed with collaborators to develop advanced algorithms for high-quality image reconstruction that improves soft tissue image quality and reduces radiation dose. They are also developing “autofocus” methods that unravel motion-related distortions to restore image quality and avoid retakes. “These advances will allow a surgeon to more precisely approach the target, avoid normal tissue, and detect complications,” he says.
The research has been funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health and by research collaborations with Siemens and Medtronic. Siemens plans to roll out the first commercial system for high-quality 3-D C-arm imaging this year.
– Prachi Patel
May 24, 2018
Atana: A student startup uses blockchain to promote scientific collaborations
For Johns Hopkins seniors Kevin Joo and David Shi, the technology behind cryptocurrencies started as a hobby that they dabbled in between classes and homework. Now, almost two years later, they are ready to transform this hobby into a career through their startup Atana.
Joo, Atana’s CTO and a biomedical engineering and computer science double major, and Shi, Atana’s CEO and an economics major, met while working together on a class project. The two realized they shared mutual friends and a passion for blockchain, a secure technology that was created ten years ago to support the digital currency bitcoin. In 2016, they entered a global online hackathon with the goal of using blockchain to secure access to electronic health record data.
“I had been reading about cryptocurrency technologies on the dark corners of the internet for a long time,” said Shi. “Being exposed to the research and medical data at Hopkins helped us connect the dots so we could try and apply this technology to health care.”
After winning the AARP Foundation Prize at the Johns Hopkins Business Plan Competition in 2017, Joo and Shi put together a team of eleven, including three BME students and two PhD candidates from Hopkins and Stanford, to take their concept to the next level. Together, they created scalable infrastructure that allows innovators to connect on a private blockchain network. This gives researchers, clinicians, and business partners a secure platform for collaboration that allows data access and analysis without exposing sensitive information.
“Our goal is to create a more efficient ecosystem for research and development,” said Joo. “We want to make it easy to securely share resources and data, fund biotech startups, create new drugs, and bring the right people together to solve big problems.”
Attending classes during the day, the team members spend many late nights working in their dedicated space located in the Johns Hopkins incubator FastForward. “We work in sprints as opposed to the typical nine-to-five, and try to split our time effectively with school,” said Joo.
After graduation, Joo and Shi plan to focus on Atana full time. In the past few months, their team has received funding through the Ralph S. O’Connor Undergraduate Entrepreneurship Fund and raised $150,000 in their seed round so far. Now, they are turning their attention to securing additional capital, participating in a token generation event in June, and exploring various value propositions for the platform by conducting pilot studies with their partners, which include leading genomics, healthcare AI, and pharmaceutical companies. Through these studies, Atana hopes to use their technology to increase efficiency in the healthcare and life science industries.
“We both wanted to work on something that we thought could make an impact,” said Shi. “We’ve chosen a market that’s picking up steam very quickly. People are beginning to understand the potential that exists at the intersection of blockchain, research, and health care. By devoting the right resources, we can create something with a lot of value using this technology.” Read more about Atana’s work here.
Two Hopkins BME students receive Fulbright grants
Two biomedical engineering students at Johns Hopkins University have been awarded Fulbright grants, earning the chance to travel abroad to study, teach, and conduct research.
Named for the late Sen. J. William Fulbright, who sponsored legislation creating the prestigious scholarship, the Fulbright Scholar Program is the country’s largest educational exchange program, offering opportunities for students and young professionals to undertake international graduate study, advanced research, university teaching, and school teaching worldwide. Approximately 8,000 grants are awarded each year, and the program operates in more than 155 countries.
With the Fulbright Study/Research grant, a student designs a proposal for a specific country. The program aims to facilitate cultural exchange and promote mutual understanding by supporting study or research abroad.
The recipients are:
Himanshu Dashora: After graduating this spring with a BS in biomedical engineering, he will spend a year in Chennai, India, to research cell-to-cell interaction systems to improve stem cell therapies for bone cancer. After that, he plans to pursue a MD/PhD.
Callie Deng: She will graduate this year with a degree in biomedical engineering and then travel to Norway, where she will research MRI techniques to improve breast cancer detection. After that she plans to attend medical school.
More than 325,400 students have been awarded Fulbright grants since the program’s inception in 1946. The Fulbright is administered by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
For a complete listing of Johns Hopkins students to receive Fulbright grants, please visit the Hub.
May 22, 2018
BME faculty, staff, and students honored at Convocation Ceremony
The Johns Hopkins Department of Biomedical Engineering is pushing the frontiers of biomedical research and innovation—from computer vision and large-scale data modeling to regenerative medicine and immunoengineering—and bringing these discoveries into the classroom through the new BME 2.0 curriculum. This month, the Whiting School of Engineering honored several BME students, faculty, and staff for their outstanding achievements in research, academics, and mentoring at the annual Convocation Awards Ceremony at the Homewood campus.
The 2018 Robert B. Pond, Sr. Excellence in Teaching Award was presented to Amir Manbachi, lecturer in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, for excellence in instruction, instilling the desire to learn, and dedication to undergraduate students. The award is given in honor of Robert B. Pond, Sr., professor emeritus in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.
“I am humbled by this award, and I want our students to know that I learn as much from them as they may learn from me,” said Manbachi. “As a coach, I consider myself part of the team—if they win, I win; and if something fails, I have something at stake too. This synergy goes both ways.”
The Capers and Marion McDonald Award for Excellence in Mentoring and Advising was presented to Cathy Jancuk, undergraduate program manager in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. This award honors teachers, researchers, and administrators who have consistently supported the personal and professional development of their students.
“I am absolutely thrilled and surprised to be the recipient of this year’s advising and mentoring award,” said Jancuk. “It’s a wonderful honor to work with students who are so passionate in their pursuit of knowledge and driven to make a major impact in the world. I’m happy to step on campus every day to help our students achieve their dreams.”
BME students recognized at Convocation include:
BME Distinguished Service Award
This award is presented to students who have demonstrated outstanding service to the academic community through their work with the Biomedical Engineering Society or in the classroom. This year’s honorees are:
Sarah Abella, Pascal Acree, Parth Vora
BME Undergraduate Research Day Award
This award honors the top student presenter at the annual Mid-Atlantic Undergraduate Research Day event. This year’s honoree is:
Linda Trinh Memorial Award
This award is presented to members of a student design team that reflects the spirit and accomplishments of Linda Trinh, Class of 2005. This year’s honorees are:
Named in honor of Richard J. Johns, former director of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, this award is presented to students who have achieved a high level of academic success. This year’s honorees are:
Thomas Athey, Kali Barnes, Tiffany Chen, Kiersten Colotti, Gianluca Silva Croso, Himanshu Dashora, Nicolas Eng, Victoria Fang, William Franceschi, Saki Fujita, David Helfer, Dylan Hirsch, Dani Kiyasseh, Michael Koo, Michael Mudgett, Michael Murphy, Pranay Orugunta, Teja Polisetty, Denis Routkevitch, Vignesh Sadras, Vorada Sakulsaengprapha, Jin Young Sohn, Wooyang Son, Sunny Thodupunuri, Fernando Vicente, Amy Xiao, Felix Yu
David T. Yue Memorial Award
Dedicated to the memory of David T. Yue, a beloved mentor and colleague in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, this award recognizes outstanding teaching or mentoring by undergraduate teaching assistants or lab managers. This year’s honorees are:
Conan Chen, Paige Frank, Haroon Ghori, Ananya Gupta, Dohyung Kim, Vanessa Ku, Michael Mudgett, Adam Polevoy, Denis Routkevitch, Daphne Schlesinger, Xuijie Wang