High-tech meets humanity: URI's Partnership in Physiological
Measurements and Computing
KINGSTON, R.I. -- October 22, 1999 -- The lowliest thermometer and the
most advanced magnetic resonance imaging device have one thing in common:
they both take physiological measurements.
They are essential for studying physiological processes, human health
concerns like aging, and the diagnosis of illness. Federal agencies like
the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation expect
the need for such devices to grow as engineering and computers play a greater
role in physiological research and medicine.
Anticipating this need, the University of Rhode Island has formed an
interdisciplinary Partnership in Physiological Measurements and Computing.
The effort brings together 50 engineers, computer scientists, biologists,
physicians, practitioners, and entrepreneurs-half of them URI faculty from
eight different departments, and the other half external collaborators from
local industry and hospitals, federal agencies and foreign institutes. The
partnership applies advanced computing technologies and instrumentation
to problems involving human or animal physiology. The partnership has established
a website at http://www.ele.uri.edu/faculty/sun/pmc.html
The Partnership in Physiological Measurements and Computing is one of
three recently announced by URI President Robert L. Carothers and Provost
M. Beverly Swan following a competitive review process.
Provost Swan noted that, "The President's Partnership Program has
proven to be an important initiative for the University in its efforts to
drive resources toward creating and sustaining areas of excellence. This
partnership joins with those both previously and newly funded in promising
to contribute to the quality of life for the citizens of the State of Rhode
Island. The significant number and variety of participants-both internally
and externally- in the proposed areas of research speak to the timeliness
of the partnership's goals in research, teaching and outreach activities."
The President's Partnership Program was established four years ago to
increase interdisciplinary research efforts in areas critical to societal
needs. The success of the program enters a new stage with this announcement
of a second round of partnership awards. The first round produced increased
research funding to the University, major contributions to external community
partners, and a new level of undergraduate student research projects. The
URI Council for Research recommended funding for the three new partnerships
out of a field of 12 proposals.
Forming the physiological measurement partnership was a natural, according
to URI officials, because over several years, University scientists have
been marrying computer technology to the study of physiology. This marriage
has in turn led to novel approaches both to fundamental research in biology
and to clinical diagnostics.
There are five principal areas of research and education for the partnership.
1. The bioengineering and biomedical instrumentation focuses on the
application of engineering techniques to biology and medicine, including
the development of new types of medical instruments.
2. A track on research to aid people with disabilities has resulted in
adaptive equipment, special electronics and software programs.
3. The computational and experimental neuroscience track uses computer-based
instrumentation and imaging devices to better understand structure and functioning
of neural and muscular systems.
4. The biomedical signal and image processing track involves application
of digital signal processing techniques to biomedical problems. For example,
computer assisted software has been developed to speed and enhance the analysis
of tissues, including microscopic structures like mitochondria in the cells.
5. Computer modeling of physiological systems helps the team gain new
insights into the cardiovascular system, atherosclerosis, respiration, hearing
and sight, among other things. Computer modeling is also essential in basic
physiological research. It is being applied to cardiac and smooth muscle
tissues, treated as complex systems.
"We have 14 existing laboratories related to the partnership,"
said Ying Sun, URI professor of electrical and computer engineering, who
joined with Thomas Manfredi, URI professor of exercise science and Robert
B. Hill, URI professor of biological sciences, to lead the partnership.
The partnership is exploring new research tracks, as well as drawing
on established expertise of individual URI scientists, such as 15 years
of work by Sun on computer simulations of various heart diseases and many
years of analysis of invertebrate cardiac control by Hill. Their findings
have been published in the American Journal of Physiology and Journal
of Experimental Biology.
A computer, equipped to run Sun's equations, can measure coronary artery
blockage with a high degree of accuracy and consistency. Heartlab in Westerly,
one of the industrial members of the partnership, is also working to develop
such tools. Heartlab is one of the fastest growing companies in Rhode Island,
Manfredi sees tremendous potential for cooperation. "My research
is on heart failure. I can work with Professor Sun on these problems."
And the partnership teaches URI students how to develop diagnostic tools
and machines to help those with illness and disabilities. Undergraduate
students in URI biomedical engineering program have built the Personal Heart
Function Monitor, PHENOM 2001, which can monitor a patient simply through
clipping the device to the patient's finger. "I could use this kind
of a device with exercise test subjects," Manfredi said.
Manfredi, who uses an electron microscope to research the effects of
nutrition and exercise on aging, said almost everything he is doing now
involves the partnership. "When you have a good team and good modeling,
students and professionals can learn more quickly," Manfredi said.
In addition, biomedical engineering students have built devices to help
those confined to wheelchairs at Eleanor Slater Hospital in Cranston,
part of the state Department of Mental Health, Retardation and Hospitals.
"These kinds of agreements enable our hospital to provide quality
clinical services to our patients, participate in meaningful research initiatives,
and give students an opportunity to work in a health care setting to explore
career opportunities," said Jim Benedict, chief operating officer of
Eleanor Slater Hospital.
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For more information: Dave Lavallee, (401) 874-2116