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07.22.19 - Building a Vibrant Biomedical Ecosystem


In the summer of 2015, young cancer patients at Children’s Hospital of Orange County spent two weeks testing a mobile app developed by a multidisciplinary team of collaborators from the UC Irvine Center on Stress & Health and CALIT2. Called Pain Buddy, the interactive app helps children manage pain and other symptoms during cancer treatment.

Featuring a variety of engaging and interactive avatars that encourage kids to answer questions about their pain levels, the app also teaches behavioral skills to reduce pain and improve general wellbeing. In addition, Pain Buddy serves as a tool for doctors, monitoring children’s responses to questions about pain, and sending real-time data to the patient’s oncology treatment team.

Pain Buddy is but one example of CALIT2’s ongoing leadership in advancing a new biomedical ecosystem – one that includes a host of connected devices, apps and processes that use data to improve health outcomes.

Earlier this year, Michelle Fortier, UC Irvine associate professor of nursing and principal investigator on the initial Pain Buddy project, received a $3.195 million grant from the National Cancer Institute to continue research and development of the app, which she believes has “widespread applicability to any illness or condition that involves pain.”

CALIT2 researcher Sergio Gago collaborated with Fortier on Phase 1 of Pain Buddy, and is continuing the collaboration on Phase 2, which includes improved avatars and animation, as well as larger-scale testing.

“This is just one of many technology-based projects we are creating at CALIT2,” says Gago, who runs the ETAD (Engaging Technology and Application Design) lab at CALIT2, where several new prototypes are in development. These include a sensor-controlled pill bottle, an interactive exercise app and online games that help children cope with disease and surgery.

Teaming with Technology
Multidisciplinary collaboration underlies all of CALIT2’s biomedical endeavors. From Pain Buddy to a host of other devices and platforms, every project relies on cross-disciplinary expertise.

“We have been fortunate to collaborate with CALIT2 in the development of Pain Buddy,” says Fortier, a licensed clinical psychologist. “The team worked with us on the design and function of the program and has gone through countless versions and modifications as we test Pain Buddy and get feedback from our stakeholders. The creativity and expertise of the CALIT2 team has been an invaluable part of Pain Buddy’s development.”

Urologist, Distinguished Professor and former medical school dean Dr. Ralph Clayman and fellow urologist Dr. Jaime Landman collaborated with CALIT2’s technical director Mike Klopfer on Safe Passage – a sensor-laden device that measures the force applied by surgeons as they insert a ureteral access sheath during kidney stone-removal surgery.

The two also have partnered on other projects with CALIT2-affiliated faculty. “I believe a major asset of UCI is the broad variety of schools and the highly talented individuals on their faculty who are always willing to collaborate with their medical school colleagues.  To my mind, this is one of the major attributes that distinguishes UC Irvine and fosters a collegial environment in which the whole is invariably greater than the sum of its parts,” Clayman says.

In February, the New York Times addressed the surge of technologically advanced devices and applications flooding the medical market. The article quoted health care I.T. expert Jeff Becker, who said, “Advances like robotics, nanotechnology, genetic engineering, 3D printing, artificial intelligence and IoT are fueling an exciting era within health care innovation. Many of these efforts will undoubtedly fall flat, but some could end up as transformative as the X-ray itself.”

“Data is the new fuel,” says G.P. Li, director of the CALIT2 Irvine division. “Even with biomedical devices, it’s about how you use the data. It’s not just about making a device and then being done; it’s about all the connected services.”

Veteran medical device expert Stanton Rowe, former chief scientific officer and corporate vice president at Edwards Lifesciences, recently launched a biomedical device incubator in Orange County. He agrees that a sea change is underway. “With the increase in electronic patient records, and more coherent databases, big data will drive better decision-making in medicine,” he says.

That is already happening at Rowe’s former company. Edwards Lifesciences, an Irvine-based medical equipment firm specializing in artificial heart valves and hemodynamic (blood circulation) monitoring, recently launched a product that analyzes hemodynamic data from thousands of surgical patients. Using a predictive algorithm, it warns anesthesiologists about 10 minutes before a hypotensive episode will occur in surgery. “This is a great example of the power and utility of big data,” says Rowe.

Rowe, who serves on the CALIT2 Advisory Board, says the institute has been “at the cutting edge of big data,” with a key focus on health care-related applications. “CALIT2 has also been a leading institution focused on advanced imaging and modeling, which remain important areas for advancement in medicine.”
The institute’s leadership in reshaping the biomedical paradigm extends beyond the slew of projects underway in laboratories and its expertise in big data, however. CALIT2’s TechPortal serves as a pre-incubator for several budding medical and biomedical technology startups, offering a first home to students and faculty as they bring their research to the marketplace.

TechPortal offers startups affordable rent, wet and dry lab space, access to cleanrooms and other prototyping facilities, and a host of networking opportunities.

“It’s sort of a stepping stone,” says CALIT2’s Li. “Faculty and researchers who might be relatively inexperienced in the business world can jump into the muddy waters by tapping the resources in their own back yard.”

Translucence Biosystems is one of these companies. It builds and analyzes three-dimensional reconstructions of brain anatomy, employing new chemical techniques for making large specimens of biological tissue optically clear. This tissue-clearing technology makes it possible to scan intact brain tissue with a sheet of laser light, generating new tools for rapid diagnostics of neuroinflammation and brain activity at cellular resolution. (The company recently won an NIH Phase I Small Business Innovation Research Grant (SBIR) for its brain imaging work.)

Translucence Biosystems also has a cloud-based software platform to seamlessly manage the huge amounts of data its technology generates; it will stream 3D visualization of the data over diverse user networks.

Founder Sunil Gandhi, UCI associate professor of neurobiology and behavior, believes the company has tremendous potential. “Translucence Biosystems is keenly interested in moving our tissue-cleaning technology beyond neuroscience,” Gandhi says. “In particular, we are interested in developing next-generation histological tools that improve the detection of cancer and skin disorders.”  
TechPortal offers the nascent company the opportunity to establish a toehold in the market. “For new companies, there can be somewhat of a Catch-22", says Damian Wheeler, Translucence co-founder and CEO.  "Without decent lab space, it is hard for new companies to have any success; however, decent lab space is difficult to afford without having some initial success. TechPortal provides us with an ideal launching pad for our biotech startup.

“In particular, the access to UCI’s world-class fee-for-use facilities is a major advantage over alternative incubator space,” Wheeler adds. “And CALIT2’s programming gives us great opportunities to network with entrepreneurs, investors and business experts.”
Another TechPortal tenant, CBio, seeks to measure the unique properties of biological cells non-destructively by using electrical fields to separate and identify them. Company founder David Charlot is collaborating with UCI biomedical engineering and medical school faculty.

While CBio currently markets its product to laboratory scientists, Charlot says the company eventually plans to use its microfluidic platform to advance medical diagnostics, regenerative medicine and possibly even immunotherapy.

“What we do requires photolithography and other types of complex fabrication techniques, microscopy and other metrology techniques, and CALIT2 offers us that,” says Charlot, whose startup moved into the incubator in January. “We really appreciate the cleanrooms and this wonderful lab space to put our system together.”

And former TechPortal company Integra Devices, LLC is creating a zero-power, implantable pressure sensor called an eyelash sensor, a nod to its smaller-than-a-human-eyelash size. While the company, which recently raised $5 million in Series A venture capital funding, has outgrown its TechPortal space and moved to larger headquarters, its technology was developed in BiON, the CALIT2 cleanroom.

— Anna Lynn Spitzer