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Professor Joshua Smith Receives $1M to Develop a New Wireless Device for Rehabilitation

A group of international researchers with the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering (CSNE), including Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and Engineering Joshua Smith, developed an implantable device that can aid those suffering from spinal cord injuries and incontinence.

The researchers advanced to be one of three finalists, receiving $1 million through the GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) Bioelectronics Innovation Challenge. The CSNE team was one of 11 originally selected by GSK, and the million-dollar funding was awarded to support additional research.

The task presented by GSK was to produce an implantable wireless device that could assess, stimulate and block the activity of nerves that control organs. For those with spinal cord injuries or those who experience incontinence, this device could help restore bladder and sexual functions.

"For people with spinal cord injuries, restoring sexual function and bladder function are some of their top priorities — higher than regaining the ability to walk," said Chet Moritz, deputy director of the CSNE and UW associate professor of rehabilitation medicine and of physiology and biophysics.

"The vision is for these neural devices to be as ubiquitous as pacemakers or deep brain stimulators, where a surgeon implants the device and it's seamless for the patient," he said. "We're really excited to make a difference in people's lives and to help push these technologies forward."

The final implantable wireless device will be able to stimulate and block electrical signals that travel along the nerves and control specific organs, similar to turning on and off a switch. Stimulating the pelvic nerve causes the bladder to empty, for example. However, if the signals are blocked, it could help someone who is unable to control his or her bladder.

Numerous challenges persist, such as delivering power efficiently and without wires while ensuring the implanted device doesn't overheat inside the body and limiting tissue reactions at the nerve.

Overcoming these challenges relies on cross-disciplinary expertise. Smith developed the wireless power transmitter, a similar model to the wireless power systems for drones and robots. Whereas, Moritz and team member Greg Horwitz, UW associate professor of physiology and biophysics, have expertise in optogenetics, which uses light to control neurons. By stimulating, but not physically touching, the pelvic nerve, swelling and scarring may be reduced.

Collaborators at The University of Cambridge and University College of London have deep expertise in nerve and bladder physiology, as well as packaging implantable devices, so they don't corrode or breakdown in the body's moist and dynamic environment.

One goal of the research is to limit exposure to pharmaceuticals. Wireless devices are more targeted interventions by stimulating or blocking specific nerves, whereas, drugs can affect many systems throughout the body. The devices can also “read” organ function and decipher whether treatment intervention is necessary.

"We want to be able to say, 'Right now the blood pressure is high or the bladder is full — does the device need to do something or can the body be left alone?'" said Moritz. "That dramatically lowers the amount of treatment that's needed, as opposed to having someone on a drug 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

After the competition concludes, the next steps will be to disseminate the technologies to the wider research community and begin human trials. The goal is to open up treatment options for a wide variety of organs.

"The idea is that many groups could be pushing towards different human applications at the same time — not just for the bladder but for any organ. So our platform needs to be robust enough that people can dream wildly about what they want to treat with neural devices rather than pharmaceuticals," said Moritz.

The project builds on research begun at CSNE. Early hardware development was supported by funding from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, where Smith and Moritz are Allen Distinguished Investigators.

"It is gratifying to see the center's hardware research efforts paying off so quickly.  Selection by GlaxoSmithKline in this rigorous international competition shows that technologies emerging from the CSNE are at the leading edge of what is possible," Smith said.

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