Small device, big innovation, priceless impact

SMU engineering students create device to improve the lives of those with Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and other neuromuscular diseases.

By Patricia Ward
SMU Magazine

DALLAS (SMU) – It’s about the size of a slice of bread, costs roughly $60 to purchase and assemble, and packs the potential to improve the lives of thousands of patients around the globe with Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and other neuromuscular diseases.

The portable bioelectric impedance analyzer developed by graduating SMU seniors Taylor Barg, Allison Garcia, Danya Hoban, Mar McCreary and Hyun Song measures electric current pulsing through the body to assess muscle health. For someone who otherwise might have to endure a painful needle biopsy or costly MRI to measure the progress of their disease, this small device would be a welcome improvement.

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The women have been working together on the device since the beginning of the academic year as their senior design project in SMU’s Lyle School of Engineering.

“Our goal was to create an affordable, accessible device that was non-invasive and non-intimidating,” says group spokesperson McCreary, a mechanical engineering major with a premedical/biomedical specialization. She recently presented their research at the 2017 HUNTALKS hosted by the Hunter and Stephanie Hunt Institute for Engineering and Humanity, a pipeline for student innovation with social impact at SMU.

Their research is particularly relevant now because the number of health issues and deaths attributed to neurodegeneration in the rapidly growing population of aging Americans. McCreary points out that the Parkinson’s mortality rate has jumped 330 percent over the last 40 years. In addition to the comfort factor inherent in their design, the diagnostic and monitoring applications of their device could improve the odds for older patients living in rural areas without easy access to doctors and medical services.

Each student on the team contributed ideas and expertise in her field. Hoban also is a mechanical engineering major with a premedical/biomedical specialization, while Barg is pursuing a degree in mechanical engineering. Garcia and Song are electrical engineering (EE) majors in the “4+1” program, which enables them to complete a master’s degree in one year after earning a bachelor’s degree.

The concept behind the invention looks deceptively simple – it’s all about measuring the reaction of electrical current to the various types of tissue it encounters while passing through the body.  The five-by-five-inch acrylic cube contains a chip mounted on a circuit board. It delivers high-frequency, low-intensity electrical voltage through a stick-on electrode applied to the skin.  Another electrode placed on the skin nearby is used to measure the current as it leaves the body. The analyzer interfaces with a laptop, which captures the readings.

The painless process can be completed in a matter of minutes.

The student design boasts both compact size and low cost: The impedance analyzers commonly found in medical settings are heavy, expensive and complex. The model the team utilizes as a control test for their data sells for approximately $40,000, and it has to be transported from lab to lab on a cart. A recent elevator outage meant it couldn’t be moved easily, demonstrating the need for portability.

Another factor crucial to their vision is ease of operation, which Song and Garcia are refining. “We’re designing a user interface that is easy enough for anyone to use with some simple instructions,” Garcia says. “Ideally we want patients to be able to use it at home, where they could monitor aspects of their treatment such as their physical therapy progress.”

McCreary foresees telemedicine applications for their device in rural areas of the United States, where patients live too far from major medical centers to make frequent visits to their doctors. Patients could take readings at home that would be analyzed remotely by health professionals to monitor muscle deterioration and treatment efficacy. In poor or isolated communities around the globe, the mobile analyzer could be a thrifty alternative to costly equipment.

When the team came together in fall 2016, they had no idea how their investigation would unfold. They were assigned to faculty mentor Ahmet Can Sabuncu, clinical assistant professor of mechanical engineering in the Lyle School. He originally proposed they pursue a different project involving a hand-held body-fat measurement tool with mobile connectivity. However, after completing preliminary groundwork, they decided to “twist the problem in some way and started looking into measuring muscle quality using techniques that were being applied in fat composition analyses,” explains McCreary.

Electrical impedance myography – the technical term for the process – is based on the principle that electrical current is “impeded” as it travels through a substance, such as human tissue. In this case, the variations in the input and output measurements can indicate disease-induced alterations to muscle composition. Diseased muscles generally have fewer muscle fibers, smaller cell membranes and abnormal amounts of fat and water, all of which impact the electrical current measurements.

When they were ready to test the device, their first stop was at the butcher counter of the grocery store, where they purchased a carnivore’s trifecta to fuel their research.

“We took measurements on hamburger, marbled New York strip steak and filet mignon because the differences in the meats’ tissue density and fat content helped us understand the variations in the voltage,” explains McCreary.

Now they’re deploying their analyzer to build a database of electrical impedance values for healthy human biceps using a pool of volunteers of all ages from the University community. The baseline database could serve as a valuable diagnostic tool in helping to detect muscle abnormalities.

“We did a lot of background research and found that much of the data was collected on older, more obese patients,” explains McCreary. “So we decided to focus on areas where the data was lacking.”

SMU Engaged Learning grants secured by McCreary, Garcia and Hoban covered the cost of prototype development and initial testing. The Engaged Learning program supports student researchers who take what they learn in the classroom and apply it to significant, goal-oriented projects in their fields.

“It has been really exciting to take what I’ve learned in EE classes and apply it in new and practical ways,” says Garcia. “When we were first given the chip, we spent a lot of time learning what the board could do for us, which helped frame our research.”

The project won the Dean’s Award for undergraduate research from Lyle’s electrical engineering department on Research Day 2017 in March, and the team is on track to have the prototype and proof of concept completed before graduation in May.

“I am proud of the team,” says faculty mentor Sabuncu. “Their achievements have surpassed my expectations in many ways. Their work exhibited a unique amalgamation of biomedical, electrical and mechanical engineering skills.”

Although their paths had crossed before – in fact, McCreary and Garcia both grew up in the Dallas area and graduated from John Paul II High School in Plano, Texas – the five students had never worked together until they joined forces on the capstone project. They share a commitment to academic achievement – each has earned scholarships from SMU – and appreciation for the opportunities they have had as undergraduates to explore their potential through meaningful research.

“SMU makes it easy for undergraduates to get involved in complex research, even as a first-year student,” McCreary says. “The faculty are really generous with their time and encourage your curiosity. I know from my own experience that you can approach professors about helping with their research. They really want to work with you.”

Although the project technically ends when the five seniors graduate in May, McCreary expects it to continue in some form.

“The device could be used for testing actual MS or ALS patients, and we would like to get involved with clinical trials somewhere in the Dallas area,” she says. It also could be upgraded with a machine-learning algorithm that would make impedance profile analysis more precise with each measurement taken, she explains.

Another option, she says, would be to “mass manufacturer the circuit board that we made so that it’s even cheaper, and we could get it out to more people in rural areas in the United States and other nations.”

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