Research updates: CMU prof wins grants for very cool technology

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The National Institutes of Health have awarded Yoed Rabin, a mechanical engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University, three grants worth $1.26 million to develop biothermal technology for low-temperature applications.

Those applications range from preserving body tissues and organs at very cold temperatures for transplantation and regenerative medicine procedures to freezing undesired tissues like cancerous tumors and destroying them in a controlled manner.

Controlling the formation of ice in tissue at low temperatures is key to how these procedures will turn out, according to Dr. Rabin in a CMU news release.

A promising method for cryopreservation is called vitrification, in which ice formation is prevented, and the tissue is transformed instead into a complex glassy material. But, unfortunately, the researcher said, common materials promoting glass formation are very toxic to humans. Developing less harmful materials is highly important to cryopreservation research, he said.

With support of one NIH grant, Dr. Rabin is investigating the effects of combining synthetic ice blockers with common glass-promoting materials in an effort to achieve vitrification in conditions kinder to tissue.

With aid of a second NIH grant, he is developing a device to use to see the effects associated with cryopreservation. Those include glass formation, crystallization and structural changes. He said ice formation is key to cryosurgery success.

With support of the third grant, Dr. Rabin is heading a team effort to develop wireless, implantable temperature sensors that would assist in monitoring temperature and control of the cryosurgical procedure. The sensors would be placed through a hypodermic needle beforehand and communicate with a wireless server during the surgery. Dr. Rabin said the wireless temperature sensor also can be used in cryopreservation, as well.

-- Pohla Smith

Wheelchair highlighted in magazine

Dr. Rory Cooper, chair of the department of rehabilitation science and technology at the University of Pittsburgh, is featured in the August issue of Popular Science for developing a better wheelchair for people with severe spinal cord injuries.

Dr. Cooper, who uses a wheelchair since suffering a spinal cord injury while serving in the Army in 1980, is developing a wheelchair with two robotic arms to help quadriplegics perform everyday tasks such as cooking, dressing and shopping.

Dr. Cooper's Personal Mobility and Manipulation Appliance (PerMMA) is one of 10 robotic devices being developed to help elderly and disabled persons profiled in the magazine in a story titled: "Rise of the Helpful Machines."

Dr. Cooper has designed the PerMMA so that users can control the robotic arms from a touchpad, microphone or joystick.

The robotic arms on the current version of the PerMMA can only support 6 pounds of weight. But Dr. Cooper is designing a new arm that could lift up to 150 pounds. That would be enough, he told Popular Science, to pull a turkey out of the oven or lift a pot of spaghetti off the stove.

The more robust version of the PerMMA is expected to be on the market by 2020.

-- Jack Kelly



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