By Xochitl Rojas-Rocha
QI encourages the curiosity of student innovators. We offer opportunities that give both undergraduate and graduate students the chance to conduct research, prototype technologies and test those technologies in the field.
Two years ago, as fourth-year undergraduate students majoring in engineering, Yan Gong and Lu Xu had no idea they were about to enter the world of biomedicine. They were in a circuits class when their professor recommended them for positions in Dr. Imanuel Lerman’s lab, which was searching for students to help with developing a treatment for chronic pain. One of their first meetings with Lerman was at a hospital where Lerman, a QI-affiliate and associate professor with UC San Diego’s Department of Anesthesiology, asked the two students to solve an issue with interference that was jamming his medical research neurotechnology devices. Without his tools, he couldn’t accurately measure his patients’ physiological responses to a novel neurotechnology he hoped would dampen their responses to pain.
Xu remembers feeling out of his depth. Neither he nor Gong had a background in biology or medicine, and their understanding of Lerman’s research was still fuzzy. They could see that his work was having an effect, however.
“I could see [the patients’] pain decrease once we applied the device,” said Xu. “I said, ‘Wow, that’s really cool.’ You apply it for five minutes, and boom, it goes into effect. So that got me really interested in doing this — the vision that…I could help people in physical and mental pain.”
Turn Left at Engineering Way
The journey that followed would challenge both Gong and Xu, pushing them into a new and daunting field of science and shifting their perspective on what they could achieve. During those first weeks, when they struggled the most, the desire to help others through Lerman’s work drew them on. Lerman was testing whether he could use electric and ultrasound energy to regulate the body’s pain response. His ultimate goal was to puzzle out whether this technique could be used to treat chronic pain in veterans, current servicemen and women and civilians with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
The key to this puzzle lies just beneath the skin, near the carotid artery. By applying electric and ultrasound energy through the skin, Lerman’s team non-invasively stimulates the vagus nerve, a bundle of nerve fibers that begins in the brainstem and winds its way down through the neck, chest and abdomen. Lerman calls the nerve an information “super-highway.” Huge amounts of feedback shuttle along the nerve from the body to the brain, triggering control reflexes that modulate organ function. For instance, the vagus nerve coordinates reflexes that regulate heart and breathing rate and can also reflexively suppress inflammation, which has been linked to chronic pain. Stimulate the vagus nerve, and you suppress inflammation in the body. Reduce inflammation, and you reduce a patient’s pain.
The team recently published an article showing that their approach works. Currently, they are working on reducing the risk of stimulating parts of the body beyond the vagus nerve. The project is supported by Farus LLC, a UC San Diego collaborative company, and by funding from foundations like the David and Janice Katz Discovery Fund for Pain Management and Neural Engineering.
For Xu and Gong, becoming graduate student researchers who could make vital contributions to biomedical science has meant seeing their engineering skills in new ways. It wasn’t easy for the two students, but Lerman reminded them that everyone starts from a blank slate. The best thing they could do was accomplish as much as they could with what they had — and that meant pushing past their doubts.
“It’s a blessing to be able to work for Dr. Lerman. We feel really grateful to him for pushing us… Before we believe in ourselves, he believes that we can do more,” said Xu.
Five months after joining the lab, Gong and Xu presented their work to representatives from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. It was a proud moment for the entire team.
“I remember listening to [Gong and Xu] present, their voices ringing in the air as they confidently presented their results and demonstrated our devices. I will always remember that day,” Lerman said.
At the Crossroads of Mind and Machine
Since then, the team has marked several accomplishments that are firsts in their field. They have showed that it’s possible to stimulate parts of the nervous system using sound waves, through focused ultrasound. Gong, in collaboration with Truong Nguyen’s lab in the UC San Diego Electrical and Computer Science Engineering Department, was able to track nerves in the body through advanced ultrasound machine learning-based shape recognition. Her research allows the team to control a robotic arm that can target ultrasound toward specific areas. The realization that her skill in engineering is critical to designing devices that can find and target a patient’s vagus nerve and result in a viable treatment has helped Gong grow more confident, and more curious about fields outside electrical engineering.
“After going into this field, I can now start to see the many relationships between biology and engineering. So, this is actually a really good and exciting thing, and as Dr. Lerman always says to us, ‘Neural engineering with neurotechnology is the new norm,’” she said.
Gong and Xu’s interdisciplinary research is right at home at QI. As a site for researchers of all disciplines, QI encourages scientists to collaborate across the typical boundaries separating their fields of study. Here, Gong and Xu have had the chance to work with medical researchers and electrical engineers, and form critical connections with colleagues in industry, and the medical and engineering research fields. It is one of several successful initiatives that has inspired QI to engage with the student community at UC San Diego.
Soon, Gong and Xu will finish their Master’s degrees and move on to Ph.D. programs with an emphasis on neural engineering using focused ultrasound techniques. Xu thinks that he’d like to ultimately find a position in a company that lets him do the innovative, creative work he has done with Lerman at QI. Gong loves teaching, and leans toward a professorship or a position as an academic researcher. She is excited for her future studies — all of which are in biomedical and neural engineering.