With a recently awarded grant from the National Institutes of Health, Robinson and Chemistry Professor Todd Pagano of NTID are part of a team researching pipe use and the resulting health impacts, including toxicity and danger of abuse and addiction.
In Robinson’s view, this sort of research just scratches the surface of what role engineering can play in health care. “In some ways, engineering has to reach out and say to health scientists’ ‘look what we can do for you’ in this space,” she said. The $391,000 grant, entitled “Topography, Constituents, and Toxicity of Waterpipe Tobacco Smoke Under Realistic Conditions,” is a collaboration with the University of Rochester.
Sponsored research funding, particularly from the NIH, is growing across RIT. Since 2007, the total amount of NIH awards annually has hovered around $1M, but during the last two years, it has increased significantly, with RIT receiving a total of $3.4 million in 2015 and another $3.2 million in 2016.
This is significant because the “explosion in medical technology” has opened the door for RIT to play a larger role pursuing research related to health and well-being, said RIT Vice President for Research and Associate Provost Ryne Raffaelle. RIT’s strengths in digital imaging, data analytics, computer modeling, and many other areas today can support NIH’s pursuit of knowledge that prevents, detects, diagnoses and treats disease and disability.
“The NIH funds more research at universities than all the other federal departments and agencies combined, so this is a significant opportunity,” he said. “I’m proud that RIT is doing its part to step up to one of the biggest challenges our country faces today.”
The National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID), which sponsors and encourages research designed to enhance the lives of deaf and hard-of-hearing people, historically has received support from NIH, and played a key role in recent growth. The establishment of RIT’s biomedical engineering BS program and the university’s alliance with Rochester Regional Health have “expanded our view of health care related issues as well as our ability to pursue new research opportunities,” Raffaelle said.
Here are some examples of NIH-funded research underway at RIT:
RIT recently received initial funding of $1,184,771, part of a $2.7 million, five-year project for “Enabling Microsystem Technologies for Advanced Drug Delivery” research to further develop an advanced, intra-cochlear drug delivery system.
The idea behind this research is to alleviate hearing loss by safely delivering drugs, gene therapies, and other treatment options directly into a delicate area of the inner ear called the cochlea. Researchers eventually want to develop a micropump that’s implanted in the ear, so that treatment can be managed in a very safe, controlled, and measurable fashion.
But before that can happen, a “research” version is needed—one that is designed for a mouse cochlea, which typically measures 4 mm, the length of a large sesame seed. This miniature device will make it possible to test various delivery methods in a laboratory setting. Creating a micropump for a mouse’s ear requires integration of a variety of disciplines such as microsystems engineering and mathematical modeling. David Borkholder, RIT’s Bausch & Lomb Professor of Microsystems Engineering, is the principal investigator of the project, which is a collaboration with the University of South Florida.
The research project, he said, began with a cold call. After arriving at RIT in 2004, Borkholder explained, he became interested in combining microsystems and auditory research. “I called Dr. (D. Robert) Frisina, the first director of NTID, saying I was interested in this sort of convergence,” Borkholder said. Frisina suggested a meeting, and invited his son who was doing auditory research at the University of Rochester.
Within two years, the NIH’s National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders awarded Borkholder and the younger Frisina more than $900,000 to fund the research for an implantable micropump. The project led to key integration technologies required for a micro-electrical-mechanical system, or MEMS-based device. It also established inner-ear drug delivery paradigms and quantification methods, and provided information about acceptable dose and timing profiles for intra-cochlear drug delivery in mice.
The current effort focuses on two key challenges. The first is to create a micropump design that scales for use in a human ear. This involves integrating multifunctional printing and electronic packaging—two additional disciplines found at RIT. The second challenge is to measure and track how a drug might leave the pump and diffuse through the membranes of the cochlea. “The volumes we’re talking about are really small— about one billionth of a liter,” Borkholder said. “The goal is to optimize the concentration delivered from our pump.”
A smart, programmable micropump for animal model testing, eventually could lead to better treatment options for children and adults with permanent hearing loss, balance problems, and deafness. Collaborators on the project include Denis Cormier, Brinkman Professor in Industrial and Systems Engineering, and Frisina, who now serves as the director of the Neuro Engineering Research Group at the University of South Florida.
RIT recently received continued funding of $552,000 as part of a $2.2 million, five-year project to study “Language, Learning and Cognition Among Deaf Students With and Without Cochlear Implants.” The project will produce the most comprehensive studies to date in this field.
The intent of the research is to better focus services for individuals with hearing loss, making them more efficient and effective, while enhancing educational and employment opportunities as well as physical and emotional health. The research will involve three groups of young adults who will participate in eight studies. Participants will include deaf students with and without cochlear implants as well as hearing students. RIT’s Marc Marschark, principal investigator, leads NTID research concerning the relationship of language, learning and development among deaf children and adults
In addition to funding waterpipe tobacco smoke research, the NIH has awarded a more than $413,000 to RIT/NTID faculty and student researchers to develop better ways of analyzing the effects of electronic cigarettes.
During the past several years, mechanical engineering researchers in RIT’s Kate Gleason College of Engineering led by Robinson (who heads up the mechanical engineering department) have developed several unique testing devices used to assess the behavior associated with e-cig use. The handheld devices have internal sensors to track the number of cigarettes an individual uses, puff length, emissions and flow rate to determine the total exposure a smoker or vapor would have.
NTID researchers led by Pagano have been analyzing the potential toxicants produced by e-cig flavorings, looking to determine what compounds are present before and after vaping, and which compounds might be harmful.
Working together, the researchers are ranking e-cig flavorings by chemicals and hazard with the aim of informing government agencies of the long-term adverse effects of existing and newer flavorings. Their work is part of a larger project led by principal investigator Irfan Rahman of the University of Rochester Medical Center, whose aim is to examine the DNA damage and inflammatory responses of cells exposed to e-cigs.