Every process in our bodies depends on information—from sensory signals to the instructions our genes send, which determine how we grow and how we repair ourselves. Within IST, we map the flow of information in the body, learning how genes direct development, how neurons communicate, and how immune cells and viruses adapt their tactics against each other. This information helps us invent medicines and prostheses that can interact naturally with the brain, nerves, muscles, and other systems and organs. We use our outstanding nano-engineering facilities to create powerful, inexpensive diagnostic tools such as labs on chips, super-compact high-resolution microscopes, and wireless medical-care systems.

Research thrusts

  • Portable, inexpensive diagnostic tools for the developing world and rural areas
  • Implants and prostheses that integrate seamlessly with nerves, muscles, the brain, and other systems and organs
  • New sensors, chips, and medicines that can assemble themselves, communicate, and self-heal as biological molecules do
  • Methods for extracting relevant content from noisy or incomplete medical images

IST undergraduates work on problems far from Pasadena. One group is working on medical sensors and cloud computing to help the rural poor in developing economies. They aim to help villagers who feel unwell determine whether to travel to a clinic or to stay at home. Traveling to a clinic can take time and money that a rural laborer may not be able to afford. Cell phones are ubiquitous even in rural areas. So IST students are building sensors that send medical data to cloud computing systems through cell phones. They have built devices for imaging the inner ear and skin lesions, and for monitoring heart sounds and EKG signals. Doctors anywhere in the world can view signals stored in the cloud. The students are mentored by professor Mani Chandy and by Julian Bunn of Caltech’s Center for Advanced Computing Research, and they collaborate with the UCI School of Medicine and with teams in India, gaining a wider worldview.

Millions of Americans contend with blindness or degenerating vision. But developing retinal implants that could restore sight involves daunting challenges in miniaturization—for instance, as many as 1,000 electrodes have to fit inside the retina. Professors Yu-Chong Tai and Azita Emami and colleagues are working to develop miniature, flexible implants using new materials and technologies. Tai’s group recently micromachined a biocompatible pressure sensor that can be injected into the eye and has wireless readout capacity. Emami’s group is designing small, low-power, controllable electronics that stimulate the retinal cells. The battery-less microchip implants receive the image and power wirelessly, process the information, and deliver precise stimulation currents to the nerves for transmission to the visual cortex. Emami is an assistant professor of electrical engineering; Tai is a professor of electrical engineering and mechanical engineering.

What if a tiny, mass-producible device could render images as well as a top-quality microscope does? Professor of Electrical Engineering and Bioengineering Changhuei Yang and his group recently created a quarter-sized prototype that uses sunlight to produce images. The microscope-on-a-chip could be especially useful in checking blood samples for malaria or checking water supplies for pathogens. The device is based on an invention of Yang and colleagues: optofluidic microscopy, a compact, lensless imaging technique that combines traditional computer-chip technology with microfluidics—the channeling of fluid flow at incredibly small scales. Microfluidic flow delivers specimens across one or more arrays of micrometer-sized apertures on a metal-coated CMOS sensor, generating direct-projection images.

A bioimaging advance by professor Niles Pierce and coworkers provides biologists with an important new research tool for studying the genetic circuits that control development and disease. By engineering molecular amplifiers that are programmable, Pierce and colleagues have overcome a four-decade-old challenge to biological research, enabling biologists to simultaneously map the activity of up to five different genes within intact vertebrate embryos. Pierce, a professor of applied and computational mathematics and bioengineering, is involved in the Molecular Programming Project, which is establishing computer-science principles for programming the function of information-bearing molecules such as DNA and RNA. The array of applications for MPP work could range from chemical circuitry for interacting with biological molecules to molecular robotics and nanoscale computing.

PET scans—imaging tests used in the treatment of cancer, heart disease, and brain abnormalities—may soon improve, thanks to a new algorithm developed by Catherine Beni (PhD '11) and Professor of Applied and Computational Mathematics Oscar Bruno. Computers typically reconstruct images from PET scans using computationally intensive iterative methods to remove the noise and errors PET scanners generate. Beni and Bruno's new algorithm provides a fast, direct method for reconstructing high-quality images even in the presence of significant noise: their improved method squeezes even more information from the current imaging technology at no additional cost.

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