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, Sun said. 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. # # # For more information: Dave Lavallee, (401) 874-2116