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BMED Pulse

Biomedical Engineering Department • Cal Poly College of Engineering • Summer 2019

On the Move BMED graduate’s new business will help Parkinson’s patients walk See Page 4

BMED Pulse

A Cal Poly biomedical engineering professor since 2007, Lily Laiho has been named department chair for the 2019-2020 academic year. She succeeds interim chair Lanny Griffin.

Lily Laiho Named New Chair of BMED Department


ily Laiho, who has years of industry and academic experience, will be the new chair of the Biomedical Engineering Department, College of Engineering Dean Amy S. Fleischer recently announced. Laiho, who takes on her new role at the beginning of the 2019-2020 academic year, obtained her undergraduate and master’s degrees from Stanford University and her doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Before earning her Ph.D., she worked for Carco Electronics as a mechanical engineer and project manager designing flight motion simulators. She also worked at ALZA Corporation, a pharmaceutical company, developing components for drug manufacturing equipment prototypes. She began her university teaching career in 2004, when she became an assistant professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. In 2007, she joined Cal Poly’s faculty, first as assistant professor and eventually as professor. At Cal Poly, she has served as director of interdisciplinary projects since 2013

and has been a director for the Quality of Life Plus program on campus. She has also served on committees for hiring faculty and allocating funding for student projects. Her research interests include advanced imaging, biomedical engineering design, and non-invasive biopsy, and her research includes the protective benefits of milk on skin cells and how it reduces the damages of UV light. She replaces Lanny Griffin, who served as interim chair.

Regenerative Medicine Master’s Program Turns 10


hen Mahvish Syed was trying to determine what type of engineering to study, she was drawn to biomedical engineering because the field is fluid and new. “Biomedical is still fresh,” she said. “You can still pioneer something.” Syed is a graduate student in the regenerative medicine master’s program, which is now ten years old. Combining engineering with biology, the unique program teaches students to develop medical treatments that will help people regenerate parts of their body. The 2-year program features a year of coursework and project experience followed by a 9-month paid

Mahvish Syed is a graduate student in the regenerative medicine master’s program.

internship that offers industry experience. The degree prepares graduates for careers in research and development, biologics manufacturing, and translational research. Students in the program can also go on to pursue a doctorate in the field. Biomedical engineering is projected to be the third fastest-growing occupation through 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. While the average growth rate for all occupations in the United States is 14.3 percent, the rate for biomedical engineers is at 62 percent -- more than quadruple the national average. See Syed’s story in the next issue of Engineering Advantage and a video of her on the CENG website at: https:// engineering.calpoly.edu/lifelesson. n

Helping Hands Biomedical engineering student Leila Assal, right, and general engineering student Janis Iourovitski, left, were members of Project Midas – also known as Hands for Julian – which created a pair of prosthetic hands for a 10-year-old boy badly burned in a suspected DUI accident a year ago. After working on the hands for nine months, the students presented them to the boy, Julian Reynoso, of Los Angeles, in June. The project was initiated through the Quality of Life Plus Student Association. See a video about the project on the CENG website at: https://engineering.calpoly.edu/ helping-hands


Creating Body Doubles Chris Heylman’s “tissue chip” research aims to accelerate testing for cancer drugs


s tens of thousands of Americans were becoming infected with the HIV/AIDS virus in the 80s, a North Carolina pharmaceutical company looked toward a drug called AZT as a way to halt what was quickly becoming a devastating worldwide disease. Luckily, AZT wasn’t new — it had been developed, unsuccessfully, to treat cancer two decades earlier. Yet, with the number of new HIV/AIDS cases and fatalities roughly doubling every year between 1981 and 1987, the pressure was on to quickly bring it to the market. The 25 months between the drug’s first laboratory demonstration and its final unveiling as an anti-HIV drug in 1987 was considered remarkable – and yet close to 10,000 Americans died from the disease during that period. “The standard line in the sand answer is that it takes ten years and a billion dollars to bring a drug to market,” said Chris Heylman, an assistant professor in the biomedical engineering department. Heylman is working on what is called “tissue chip” technology that could greatly expedite the time it takes to approve drugs. “It has always held a lot of promise,” he said. “But it hasn’t quite come to fruition yet.” Even when diseases call for urgency, testing drugs is vital. According to the National Institutes of Health, roughly 30 percent of promising medications failed in clinical trials because they are found to be toxic despite promising pre-clinical studies in animal models, and roughly 60 percent fail due to lack of efficacy. To avoid providing the public with drugs that can cause more harm than good, multiple steps are required before drugs can be tested on humans. “Each of these steps are getting progressively more expensive, taking up more time and more resources,” Heylman said. Tissue chip technology, also called “organs on chips,” are 3-D platforms engineered to support living tissues and cells. Roughly the size of a thumb drive, these chip designs — using stem cells, tissue engineering and microfabrication — mimic complex biological functions, allowing drugs to be tested on organs, tumors, muscles and marrow. Researchers hope to create a “human body on a chip” to gauge how drugs directed at some body parts might have unintended side effects on others. If a model of the human body could be successfully created, the drug approval process would be much quicker. It would also reduce reliance on animal models that aren’t always reliable indicators of drug efficacy on people and the use of human “guinea pigs” during clinical trials. It could also ultimately cut costs related to years of testing. “Everyone always harps on the drug companies for charging so much for drugs,” Heylman said. “But it takes them that long to develop one drug, and they spend half or three-quarters of that

Biomedical engineering professor Chris Heylman is focusing his research on “tissue chip” technology that could help make testing for cancer drugs more efficient — and faster.

on a bunch of failed ones that don’t make them any money.” Heylman’s research is specifically focusing on colon cancer drugs. Heylman studied general engineering at Cal Poly with a concentration on biomedical engineering. He eventually earned his doctorate in biomedical engineering from Case Western Reserve university in Cleveland. After post-doctoral work at the University of California, Irvine, he founded and served as CEO of Velox Biosystems, a clinical diagnostic startup, before obtaining his first teaching job at Cal Poly two years ago. “I always wanted to teach,” he said. “That’s why I got my PhD.” Pharmaceutical testing is a complicated process. Even though AZT was approved on a fast track in 1987, the HIV/AIDS crisis peaked in 1995. And the eventual dramatic decrease in HIV/ AIDS deaths – by 80 percent since 1995 – required other drugs along with AZT. Still, the success of HIV/AIDS medicine offers encouragement for combatting other diseases. Tissue chip technology focuses on cancer. While Cal Poly is not known for medical research, Heylman’s efforts are pursuing major scientific advances. And Cal Poly, he said, is actually well-suited for the task. “Cal Poly is really unique,” Heylman said. “A lot of places don’t have a microfabrication facility and the ability to do cell culture at a level that we do.” n

“Cal Poly is really unique. A lot of places don’t have a microfabrication facility and the ability to do cell culture at a level that we do.”


Cover Story

Making Steps in the Battle Against Parkinson’s Disease Device developed by BMED grad Sidney Collin helps with debilitating symptom known as “freezing of gait”


trio of reporters from Mustang News have arrived at Jack Brill’s residence with questions about a device that helps him walk uninterrupted, but Brill has something else in mind. “I wanna show you my awards,” he says. Then, with the help of a walker – and that device – Brill slowly heads down a hallway, humming as he goes, to a room full of awards, including a lifetime achievement honor from the Community Foundation of San Luis Obispo County. As a former engineer, financial consultant, veteran and author, Brill, 87, of San Luis Obispo, has lodged many achievements. His latest contribution came when he inspired a Cal Poly student to create a device helping Parkinson’s patients overcome a debilitating symptom known as “freezing of gait.” “Mobility is such a big part of being independent,” said Sidney Collin, who graduated from Cal Poly in March with a biomedical engineering degree. “So we want to be able to keep people mobile.” De Oro Devices, the company she launched with the help of Cal Poly’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship 4 | CAL POLY BIOMEDICAL ENGINEERING

Korean War veteran Jack Brill shows Sidney Collin a page from his autobiography. While Collin was a BMED student at Cal Poly, Brill issued a challenge that eventually resulted in Collin’s business, De Oro Devices, which helps Parkinson’s patients experiencing freezing of gait.

(CIE), recently beat out six other startups for a $100,000 investment during the 2nd Annual Central Coast Angel Conference Pitch Competition. While De Oro is now a business designed to help patients worldwide, it began as a student project targeted to one. As Collin recently told a crowd of 300 at Good Morning SLO, “It all started with a

man named Jack.” After Collin’s second year at Cal Poly, a professor matched her with Brill, a Korean War veteran, who has Parkinson’s, a progressive nervous system disorder that affects movement. Brill experiences “freezing of gait,” a condition in which signals sent from his brain are not being delivered to the legs, resulting in the sudden onset of immobility. “You freeze,” Collin said. “Your feet feel like they’re glued to the floor.” Freezing of gait occurs with 80 percent of people with severe Parkinson’s. In worst case scenarios, the patient can actually fall during an immobile episode, resulting in serious injury. Through research, Collin found that audio and visual cues can interrupt freezing of gait, re-establishing the brain-body connection and restoring mobility. While some devices did incorporate those elements, none of them included both audio and visual cues, and they didn’t allow the patient to control them. “It was either always on or always off, and that was a problem for a lot of people,” Collin said. Her device, called the Gaitway, is

BMED graduate Sidney Collin demonstrates the Gaitway device, which after being attached to a cain, produces a green laser line or an audio cue that interrupts the freezing of gait symptom that affects many Parkinson’s disease patients.

slightly bigger than a computer mouse and easily attaches to a cane or walker. When a patient gets stuck, they can activate an audio cue (a metronome beeping noise) or a visual one (a green laser line that projects on the ground), which will interrupt the freezing of gait. Brill has been helping with Parkinson’s research for years. After the Gaitway successfully helped him, he invited Collin to a Parkinson’s support group with 15 to 20 other people that could also benefit from it. “That’s when we realized it’s not just Jack that has this problem,” Collin said during Good Morning SLO, a monthly event put on by the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce. The project eventually moved to the Quality of Life Plus program on campus, which matches students with veterans who have physical challenges. From there it went to the CIE, first in its Hatchery program, which foster initiatives, then to the HotHouse Incubator, which provides resources for budding businesses. The HotHouse, Collin said, provided office space, funding and business mentoring. “I came to this with only a technical background,” Collin said. “It was like a crash course.” She eventually teamed with Adam Schwartz, currently a Cal Poly student majoring in business administration, finance and financial management services, and William Thompson, who earned his MBA from Cal Poly and works with the university’s Information Technology Services Department, as co-founders. As they continued their research, interviewing 50 Parkinson’s patients who experience freezing of gait and performing informal testing on a dozen, their device garnered attention, winning first place in the Not Impossible pitch competition in Los Angeles and attracting investors before winning the Central Coast contest. “Cal Poly is incredible,” said Brill, who published two books about socially responsible investing. “And the whole program that Sidney is part of.” While Parkinson’s is a progressive disease, meaning it will worsen, Brill told the Mustang News reporters that the Gaitway has offset some of the negative effects. “It changed my life,” he said. “It has been a tremendous help.” De Oro’s space at the HotHouse, located in downtown San Luis Obispo, includes two white boards, mapping out the strategy of her business. The boards include a

quote from formula racing legend Mario Andretti: “If everything seems under control, you’re not going fast enough.” Collin is both in control and moving full-speed ahead: De Oro is now seeking to add two more full-time employees so it can have 200 devices ready by its September launch goal.

Collin demonstrated her device during the annual Evening of Green & Gold. And President Jeffrey D. Armstrong, who was there, later noted how the Gaitway can potentially impact millions. “This is really the Power of Learn by Doing, which was born here at Cal Poly and will always thrive here.” n

“Mobility is such a big part of being independent. So we want to be able to keep people mobile.” BMED.CALPOLY.EDU | 5

BMED Pulse

Riding a Wave to Innovation Biomedical engineering student Oyundari Altansukh tried surfing for the first time while working on a QL+ Lab project to design and build a prosthetic foot for an injured U.S. Army veteran. Altansukh said the experience helped her understand the movement surfers require in their feet and ankles.

Student team works on surfing prosthetic for wounded vets


s a gentle wave approaches, Kyle Kelly paddles his board toward the beach, pops up when the rolling water propels him, then begins to glide down the liquid slope, marking the beginnings of a stoke-able ride in Avila Beach. Except when he tries to turn into the face of the wave – that unbroken sweet spot surfers dream about -- his rigid, sharpedged prosthetic foot digs into the deck of his soft-top surfboard. Then the breaking whitewater catches up to him, and it’s all over. “While I can get on the board now, and I can ride a wave,” he said beforehand, “I feel my capacity would be so much more if I had at least a little more flexibility in the ankle to be able to keep my foot down in rotation for when I make those turns to control the board left or right on a wave.” Surfing provides valuable therapy for Kelly, a Texas Army veteran who lost his lower right leg to a roadside bomb in Iraq. “It’s better than any other kind of meditation or therapy,” he said. “It’s been one of the most healing things for me.” But the experience could be even better with a prosthetic limb designed for surfing. Knowing that, Van Curaza, owner of the Operation Surf Camp for wounded vets, called on Cal Poly students to help. Last fall, a team of students began working on that challenge through the Quality of Life Plus (QL+) program, which has a lab on campus. “It feels amazing to know the lessons I learned at Cal Poly can be applied to making a change in someone’s life,” said Samantha Campbell, a biomedical engineering student from La Cañada Flintridge, CA. QL+ was established here in 2008 by Cal Poly alumnus Jon Monett (Industrial Engineering, ’64). Since then, QL+ programs have opened in 12 other schools nationwide – with more on the 6 | CAL POLY BIOMEDICAL ENGINEERING

The QL+ prosthetic foot team, from left Caroline Swanson, Oyundari Altansukh, Samantha Campbell and Kurtis Barth, discuss design ideas for the foot with Van Curaza, right, the owner of Operation Surf Camp for wounded veterans.

way — the goal being to assign students to work on challenges wounded veterans face. After challenges are issued in the fall, they are paired with students, who then work on the challenges throughout the school year. “And at the end of the year, there’s a project expo, where they will present their final projects to the entire public,” said Lily Laiho, a biomedical engineering professor and advisor to the QL+ program. Curaza, whose camp introduces wounded vets to surfing, knows prosthetics have limitations. “Everything is built to walk,” he said. “There’s nothing I’ve seen out there that allows the postures and the body mechanics that I see as necessary not just to learn how to surf but probably for other sports also.” A team of four took up his challenge – BMED students Campbell and Oyundari Altansukh, of Concord, and

BMED student Samantha Campbell and the QL+ team spent hours in the Aero Hangar machine shop milling aluminum parts for the prosthetic ankle, shown at right.

mechanical engineering students Caroline Swanson, of Portland, and Kurtis Barth of Boulder, CO. As advanced as prosthetics have become, they’re still no match for the technology of the human body. The ankle, for example, has ligaments that control movement and three bones that facilitate the up-and-down and side-to-side movement of the foot – a major challenge for the team to imitate. “The ankle is very complex,” said Barb Springer, director of operations for QL+ and former director of rehabilitation and reintegration for the U.S. Army. “They need to be able to figure out how to have mobility on a surfboard and yet have stability.” The team set out to learn more about the challenge last fall by attending an Operation Surf Camp surf session in Morro Bay. There they watched Kelly surf, then spoke with him directly. “It was good to hear what he has to say about his limitations,” Swanson said. “That kind of got the ball rolling, in my mind, about how we could make something.” After meeting Kelly, the students began the design process, where they decided they needed to build a carbon fiber foot that’s light, strong and multi-layered. In February, the team began cutting 26 layers of carbon fiber for the foot, marking the beginning of the manufacturing phase. “It’s actually really exciting to be making stuff,” Altansukh said then. “After this, we’re going to do some testing to see how it works and then do more manufacturing and make our design better.” From there, they moved to the Aero Hangar, where they began machining metal tubes that would work as the lower leg. To gauge how the movement would work, they asked Karen Aydelott, a local amputee athlete — and frequent QL+ project

supporter — to give it a try on dry land. As she recreated common surf movements, the prosthetic showed flexibility typical carbon fiber foots do not. “That’s pretty amazing,” Aydelott said. Still, the team knew, testing the device in the surf would be different. “There are a lot of factors that are going to change in the environment of the ocean,” Campbell said. On a foggy day in June, Kelly put nine months of work to the test. After paddling to the Morro Rock lineup with Curaza, Kelly quickly spotted an approaching wave, swung his board around and began paddling. While his pop-up was measured, his stance looked good as he rode the wave toward the beach. The epoxy connecting the ankle to the foot gave out after a second ride, but Kelly praised the prosthetic afterward. “There’s a noticeable and incredible difference as far as being able to move my ankle,” he said. “It changed the way I stood up on the board. It made everything smoother, easier, faster than the leg that I have been using to surf.” As a protoype, Swanson said, the prosthetic showed how mobility can be improved. As a student project, Altansukh said, it was a valuable learning experience. “I learned a lot from my teammates – specific skills, like manufacturing and designing,”she said. “Also, how to communicate with sponsors and just working on process, managing time, being able to work with other people . . .” n

Video Series

Get a glimpse of the surfing prosthetic team at work in our four-part video series, “Follow the Challenge,” at engineering.calpoly.edu.


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