What’s better than one Michigan Engineer making critical innovations at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)? How about two?
In the fall of 2007, after earning their bachelor’s degrees in mechanical engineering at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, identical twins Aftin and Astin Ross joined U-M’s biomedical engineering master’s program. They were eager to apply their longstanding interest in science to improve the quality of people’s lives.
Flash forward 10 years later: They both went on to earn PhDs in biomedical engineering from U-M and are using their degrees to advance public health in the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health (CDRH). Between the two of them, they’ve exerted influence on the FDA’s research itself and the way the organization manages its projects and communications. Although Aftin and Astin didn’t initially plan to come to the same center, and actually followed diverging paths for a few years after obtaining their Michigan doctorates, they have been brought back together again.
After graduating from U-M in 2012, Aftin performed research at The Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany. She joined the FDA in 2013 as a Commissioner’s Fellow in emergency operations involving medical device availability and delivery. Now as a Senior Project Manager, she continues to provide engineering expertise for a preparedness program that makes sure patients have access to medical devices during emergencies like disease outbreaks or radiological events. She also aids in incident response for medical device public health concerns and is working to develop policy for medical device cybersecurity.
“We want to make our decisions based on science — that’s a key part of what we do at the FDA. I can put a huge technical background into the work I do, and I’m then able to use that to make broader, more immediate impacts. It is a wonderful feeling to know that the projects that I work on have helped enhance or even saved people’s lives.”
Her work in Germany also gave her a cross-cultural understanding of scientific approaches to global issues that she works with now. “These issues that are happening in the United States are not just happening here. They also have global impact,” she points out.
After graduating from U-M in 2014, Astin worked as an editor for Cactus Communications and as a researcher for the National Institute on Deafness and Communication Disorders at the National Institutes of Health, before getting a call from the FDA asking her to join as a Staff Fellow in 2016.
Now, a Senior Science Health Advisor, she manages two main projects at the FDA. She is coordinating the implementation and continuous improvement of an internal regulatory science review process that fosters more collaborative relationships between researchers and regulatory reviewers in CDRH. This is done by providing the opportunity for people with similar scientific and clinical interests to interact in-person and use human centered design approaches to brainstorm ways to enhance regulatory science research. She has also been instrumental in launching a program that serves as an all-inclusive resource for various groups working on issues with broad impact across CDRH, enabling FDA employees to understand which experts are already working in a given area and where there may be gaps that they might address by starting new project groups.
“What really attracted me to come here was that, although I enjoyed research, it took a long time to see the application of my work. Coming into a position like this, I can see the application and visibility of my impact. To coordinate and improve the way people work effectively at the FDA, which in itself improves public health, is really powerful.”
During graduate school, Aftin and Astin had been involved in many of the same extracurriculars, including the Society of Minority Engineers and Scientists – Graduate Component (SMES-G) and the Movement of Underrepresented Sisters in Engineering and the Sciences (MUSES).
Their graduate studies, coupled with their activities outside of class, have given them a boost in collaborating, organizing, leading and networking in their current roles. “Working with people with different personalities, and various nationalities and cultural perspectives at Michigan was extremely valuable,” Astin says.
It doesn’t hurt that Aftin and Astin have been surrounded by Michigan alums at their organizations post-graduation — the shared experience has been a jumping off point for countless new conversations and collaborations.
- Michigan Engineering: https://news.engin.umich.edu/2017/05/aftin-astin-ross-profile-story/
- Photo: Laura Rudich | Michigan Engineering
ANN ARBOR—The Rehabilitation Biomechanics Laboratory at the University of Michigan looks part playground, part film studio, part bionic woman.
A mechanical foot sliced off cleanly at the ankle sits on a shelf—a prosthesis for testing. Twenty cameras on tripods of various heights are aimed toward the center of the room at a cluster of random objects: A door that opens into nothing. A desk phone on a table. A pitcher of water and a glass. A chair. A long, shallow sandbox.
Actually, these objects aren't random at all, explains U-M doctoral student Susannah Engdahl. They've been carefully selected to measure and compare the range of motion of people who use prosthetics against those who don't.
This is Engdahl's area of research, and her own disability has proven helpful in setting up these experiments. Engdahl is missing both hands and most of both feet.
She shrugs and sips her coffee:
"I was born this way. The doctors never nailed down a cause."
Engdahl, 25, earned her bachelor's degree at Wittenberg University in Ohio, and says she decided on the U-M program in biomedical engineering because it "hit all the checkmarks"—health, math, science and the human body.
"Biomedical engineering is a broad field and prosthetics stood out because I already knew how important prosthetics can be in improving quality of life," Engdahl says.
She has been in U-M faculty member Deanna Gates' Rehabilitation Biomechanics Laboratory for three years. Part of the School of Kinesiology, the lab is tucked in the basement of the Central Campus Recreation Building in a converted racquetball court that still feels faintly humid.
Engdahl has been lucky with her own prosthetic hands, she says, because she's had very little pain or awkwardness, which is a huge problem among prosthetic users. Hers is among the family of prosthetics called myoelectric, which work by capturing electrical signals from the body—in this case, her arms—to control her hands.
Other prosthetics are body powered—they're held to the body by harnesses and move when cables are activated by body movement. Each has advantages and disadvantages, but one big upside of Engdahl's is that at first glance you don't even know she's wearing them. She received her first pair of prosthetics when she was about 2.
"The cosmetic factor probably helped my parents make that decision," Engdahl says, contemplating the flesh-colored stretchy sleeve that encases the hard plastic shell protecting the tiny electronics and motors that move the fingers of her hands.
But despite their natural look, the prosthetics can move only in one direction. The hands open with the thumb moving in opposition to the fingers, and close with the thumb moving towards the fingers. The thumb, index finger, and middle finger come together to create a "tripod" grip.
"Developing prosthetics that can move more similarly to a natural hand is an active area of research," Engdahl says, gripping her cardboard cup.
Quantifying how people use different types of prosthetics is one of Engdahl's dissertation research projects, and a career interest.
"It's important because most of the current research on prosthetic function is from patient feedback," says Gates, lab director and assistant professor with appointments in kinesiology and biomedical engineering.
"There's no clear direction to focus on improvements in quality of movement or range of motion, and no clear way to convince insurance companies to pay for advanced prosthetic devices."
It's natural to wonder how people with prosthetics perform everyday tasks: How do you type? Open doors? Tie your shoes? Engdahl doesn't even think about her own work-arounds, but compensations are a part of life for any prosthetic user.
Engdahl demonstrates one of these adaptations when she opens the prop door in the lab.
"It's hard for me to stand in front of the door, so I take a step over," she says. She doesn't have any wrist motion, so she moves slightly to one side of the knob for leverage, then turns the handle.
From real life to research to teaching
Engdahl not only uses her experiences with limb loss to inform her research, she also parlays them into teaching opportunities to spark future scientists. Every year, she helps Gates with the annual FEMMES event, which stands for Females Excelling More in Math, Engineering and the Sciences.
"We show the girls how the brain sends signals to muscles and how these can be measured and then used to control prosthetics," Gates says. "Susannah is generous enough to bring in one of her old sets of hands for the girls to try and she shows them how she uses them to do different things."
The girls spend the day measuring their muscle activity and making moveable hands of paper, string and straws.
"It's a great event that wouldn't be possible if Susannah weren't so open to talking with the girls about her experiences," Gates says.
When asked whether she's naturally optimistic, Engdahl says it's not easy to compare people in terms of "getting past" issues. She's always had access to the best health care and a supportive family, so it could be much simpler for her to overcome something that's difficult for someone without those advantages, she says.
"Although it did take me awhile to figure out all the tricks of the trade, I've found that most of the things I need to do in daily life can be accomplished with patience and creativity," Engdahl says. "I don't have a reason to feel intimidated by physical barriers because I'm usually able to find solutions. Admittedly, sometimes my solutions aren't ideal. But self-sufficiency is important to me, and I'd rather get a task done slowly than just not do it at all."
- Laura Bailey
A team of researchers at the University of Michigan has developed a new, revolutionary technique that has the potential to reshape the practice of surgery. Histotripsy — literally, the “crushing of tissue” — is a noninvasive therapy that uses high-intensity ultrasound pulses to liquify tissue inside the body without ever breaking the skin. With applications from congenital heart defects to brain tumors, Histotripsy will significantly impact quality of life for patients, who will be able to receive it at their physician’s office — potentially at the exact time of diagnosis — without sedation or a lengthy recovery.
From: Gabe Cherry
University of Michigan researchers have used a “kidney on a chip” device to mimic the flow of medication through human kidneys and measure its effect on kidney cells. The new technique could lead to more precise dosing of drugs, including some potentially toxic medicines often delivered in intensive care units.
Precise dosing in intensive care units is critical, as up to two-thirds of patients in the ICU experience serious kidney injury. Medications contribute to this injury in more than 20 percent of cases, largely because many intensive care drugs are potentially dangerous to the kidneys.
Determining a safe dosage, however, can be surprisingly difficult. Today, doctors and drug developers rely mainly on animal testing to measure the toxicity of drugs and determine safe doses. But animals process medications more quickly than humans, making it difficult to interpret test results and sometimes leading researchers to underestimate toxicity.
University of Michigan researchers used a “kidney on a chip” to mimic the flow of medication through human kidneys. This enabled them to study the dosing regimen for a common intensive care drug.
The paper, published in the journal Biofabrication, is titled “Pharmacokinetic profile that reduces nephrotoxicity of gentamicin in a perfused kidney-on-a-chip.” Funding and assistance for the project was provided by the National Institutes of Health (grant number GM096040), the University of Michigan Center for Integrative Research in Critical Care (MCIRCC), the University of Michigan Biointerfaces Institute, the National Research Foundation of Korea and the Korean Association of Internal Medicine Research Grant 2015.
Ann Arbor – In an entirely new approach to treating asthma and allergies, a biodegradable nanoparticle acts like a Trojan horse, hiding an allergen in a friendly shell to convince the immune system not to attack it, according to new research from the University of Michigan and Northwestern University. As a result, the allergic reaction in the airways is shut down long term and an asthma attack prevented.
The technology can be applied to food allergies as well. The nanoparticle is currently being tested in a mouse model of peanut allergy, similar to food allergy in humans.
“Small quantities of allergen have been used to de-sensitize patients, and that delivering the allergen using emerging nanotechnologies can provide a more efficient and effective system” said senior author Lonnie Shea, the William and Valerie Hall Chair and Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Michigan and adjunct professor at Northwestern.
The treatment can be applied to any allergy simply by loading the nanoparticle with the target allergen – from ragweed pollen to peanut protein.
In addition, the treatment makes use of an already FDA-approved material; the nanoparticles are composed of PLGA, a biopolymer that includes lactic acid and glycolic acid.
When the loaded nanoparticle is injected into the bloodstream of mice, the immune system sees the particle as innocuous debris. Then the nanoparticle and its hidden cargo are consumed by a macrophage, essentially a vacuum-cleaner cell.
“The vacuum-cleaner cell presents the allergen to the immune system in a way that says, ‘No worries, this belongs here,’” said Stephen Miller, another senior author on the study and the Judy Gugenheim Research Professor of Microbiology-Immunology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. The immune system then shuts down its attack on the allergen, and the immune system is reset to normal.
The allergen, in this case egg protein, was administered into the lungs of mice who had been pretreated to be allergic to the protein and already had antibodies in their blood against it. After being treated with the nanoparticle, however, they no longer had an allergic response to the allergen.
The approach creates a more normal, balanced immune system by increasing the number of regulatory T cells – immune cells important for recognizing the airway allergens as normal – while turning off the allergy-causing Th2 T cells.
It’s the first time this method for creating tolerance in the immune system has been used in allergic diseases. The approach has been used in autoimmune diseases including multiple sclerosis and celiac disease in previous preclinical research at Northwestern, and a clinical trial using the nanoparticles to treat celiac disease is in development.
“The findings represent a novel, safe and effective long-term way to treat and potentially ‘cure’ patients with life-threatening respiratory and food allergies,” said Miller.
The asthma allergy study was in mice, but the technology is progressing to clinical trials in autoimmune disease. The nanoparticle technology is being developed commercially by Cour Pharmaceuticals Development Co. A clinical trial using the nanoparticles to treat celiac disease is in development.
More information: Biodegradable antigen-associated PLG nanoparticles tolerize Th2-mediated allergic airway inflammation pre- and postsensitization, PNAS, www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1505782113
The research was supported in part by grant EB-013198 from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering and grant NS-026543 from the National Institute of Neurological Disease and Stroke, both of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Dunard Fund and a predoctoral fellowship TL1R000108 from the NIH National Center for Research Resources and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences.
Michigan Engineering Professor Charles Cain outlines a new technique called "Histotripsy," which is a non-invasive ultrasonic approach for the treatment of benign disease and cancer. Cain says the knifeless surgical approach generates energetic microbubbles that oscillate very rapidly, almost like a "nano-blender." The procedure can be used for multiple applications, including treating newborn infants with heart defects, prostate patients and potentially diseases such as breast cancer.
Cain is the Founding Chair of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Michigan and the Richard A. Auhll Professor of Engineering. He and his research team have been developing the histotripsy technique for the last five years.
By Mary F. Masson
U-M Health System
Every day, their baby stopped breathing, his collapsed bronchus blocking the crucial flow of air to his lungs. April and Bryan Gionfriddo watched helplessly, just praying that somehow the dire predictions weren’t true.
“Quite a few doctors said he had a good chance of not leaving the hospital alive,” says April Gionfriddo, about her now 20-month-old son, Kaiba. “At that point, we were desperate. Anything that would work, we would take it and run with it.”
Bioresorbable splint used for first time ever at the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, successfully stopped life-threatening tracheobronchomalacia, case featured in New England Journal of Medicine.
They found hope at the University of Michigan, where a new, bioresorbable device that could help Kaiba was under development. Kaiba’s doctors contacted Glenn Green, M.D., associate professor of pediatric otolaryngology at the University of Michigan.
Could cancer be diagnosed with a simple blood test? A new chip can trap the one cancer cell in a billion normal cells.
Sunitha Nagrath and her lab developed the chip with other members of the Translational Oncology team, which seeks to produce technologies for improving cancer diagnosis and treatment that are ready for the clinic, to help real patients quickly. When the team runs a blood sample through the chip, it can catch breast, lung and pancreatic cancer cells. These cells can then be grown on the chip to learn more about the disease in a specific patient.
Sunitha Nagrath is an assistant professor of chemical engineering and biomedical engineering at the University of Michigan College of Engineering. Her research goal is to bring the next generation of engineering tools to patient care, especially in cancer. Her major focus of research is to develop advanced MEMS tools for understanding cell trafficking in cancer through isolation, characterization and study of circulating cell in peripheral blood of cancer patients. Research at The Nagrath Lab pertains to developing microfluidic devices for isolating and studying circulating tumor cells (CTCs) as related to metastasis.