By Kelley Weiss
UC Davis researchers were faced with a challenge in 2012 to help Whiskey, a dog from San Francisco with a significant jaw tumor. This case helped inspire a partnership between the Department of Biomedical Engineering and the School of Veterinary Medicine, which created new technology to regrow the dog’s diseased jaw.
Using 3D-printing to create a model of the dog’s entire skull, the team developed and perfected the surgical approach. This entailed removing about half of Whiskey’s lower jawbone and replacing it with a titanium scaffolding and a sponge-like biomaterial infused with a bioactive agent to stimulate new cells to regenerate the jawbone.
This collaboration laid the groundwork for the UC Davis Translating Engineering Advanced Manufacturing (TEAM) facility. Distinguished Professor Kyriacos A. Athanasiou, of the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, is the director of TEAM. He says the biomedical technology used to regenerate Whiskey’s jaw was a preview of what was to come.
“This approach allowed us to develop and try the surgical approach fully in the laboratory, and not in the operating room, to treat veterinary patients. The success has then allowed us to translate this approach into human medical use,” Athanasiou says.
A PROTOTYPE FOR EDUCATION
Since its debut two years ago, the 2,300-square-foot facility has been an integral part of UC Davis biomedical engineering students’ education from their first day until graduation.
Students have access to the lab’s cutting-edge technology even during their first class as freshmen. Professor Jerry Hu, TEAM assistant director, says a great example of student participation is a design challenge event called the Make-a-thon. Students from around California are given 30 hours to design, fabricate and test a prototype that provides a solution to a design challenge.
“People learn in different ways and we kind of neglect touch as a way of learning,” Hu says. “But having a prototype in your hand creates a lot of excitement.”
The first Make-a-thon started in 2014, and the event brought together academic mentors as well as industry representatives and venture capitalists. The challenge was to create a device to help veterinarians analyze a devastating fungus infecting bats. The Make-a-thon premiere was a big success, Hu says, and was featured in Popular Science.
This year students designed adjustable eyeglass frames to better utilize lenses donated to people in developing countries. In coming years Hu hopes the Make-a-thon will grow into a national event.
FROM LEARNING TO INNOVATION – “WHAT DO YOU WANT TO MAKE?”
The TEAM facility enables students to use the skills they acquire in the College of Engineering to build new devices and technology.
Andrew Yao, manager of TEAM’s Molecular Prototyping and BioInnovation Lab, is helping students create a low-cost fluorometer.
These devices, which measure light output signals from cells, are a staple of most science labs, but many teachers can’t afford them. So, UC Davis students are developing a way for cell phones to operate as fluorometers.
“These devices are typically $20,000 or more,” Yao says. “Our students are trying to make a device that a high school teacher can afford for 20 bucks.”
UC Davis students are also putting their ideas to the test in competitions. For example, UC Davis students developed a simple, cost-effective enzyme-based biosensor to detect rancid olive oil. Their “OliView” device won the grand prize in the 2014 International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) competition.
Professor Marc Facciotti, assistant director of TEAM, says the group created groundbreaking technology in the TEAM lab that integrated electronic and molecular engineering principles.
“They came up with the idea to use a protein that acts as the sensor of what is in the oil and that is then spotted onto a custom-made device that actually reads that signal out to an electrical signal that generates something the user can read,” he says.
Facciotti says the innovation happening in the TEAM lab is pushing the boundaries of biomedical engineering.
“This is a facility that allows us to work in a completely new arena that is emerging called synthetic biology,” he says. “We’re setting out to make the engineering of biology possible so that we are engineering biological systems just like you would make a phone.” Professor Athanasiou points to the olive oil sensor as an example of “hybrid devices” made in the lab, or machines that combine electro-mechanical and engineered biological components in one device.
“It is unique. There isn’t such a combination anywhere – we pioneered this concept here as well as pioneered the concept of these hybrid devices,” he says.
BEYOND THE LAB – TRANSLATING TO BUSINESS AND ADVANCING RESEARCH
The TEAM facility is not exclusively for College of Engineering students and faculty. Researchers across the UC Davis campus also collaborate with the lab.
TEAM has worked with the UC Davis School of Medicine to test gamma knives for cranial radiosurgery and has created bioreactors for heart valves for the School of Veterinary Medicine. Within the College of Engineering the TEAM lab tested parts for the construction of the world’s first whole-body PET machine. In addition, regional companies can pay a fee to work with the lab to create custom designs for new devices
“People come to us and they have a lofty idea of what they want to achieve and we help them actually make it into a physical object,” says Steven Lucero, manager of TEAM’s Design and Prototyping Space.
In the Design and Prototyping Space, TEAM works with industry and researchers to make 3D-printed prototypes. Clients can create printed circuit boards and use laser cutting and machining to make devices. The facility’s five 3D printers produce micron-scale resolutions and prototypes with interlocking moving parts, and blend materials of different stiffness and optical properties.
The staff at TEAM also supports UC Davis students’ entrepreneurial efforts and provides pro bono services to the community, ranging from a California National Guard holiday tree ornament for the White House, to prototypes to help small businesses win federal grant money.
REDEFINING THE POSSIBILITIES
Through the combination of education, research and exploration of new frontiers in advanced manufacturing, the TEAM facility is helping to shape the future of the field.
Professor Kaiming Ye, from the State University of New York (SUNY) at Binghamton’s Department of Biomedical Engineering, says advanced manufacturing is on track to change biomedicine. Ye is the Council Chair of the Biomedical Engineering Society’s ABioM-SIG, a group that brings academics and industrial leaders together to promote advanced biomanufacturing
“The use of 3D-printed tissue-machine hybrid devices can not only improve medical treatment but also empower human beings with enhanced capabilities,” Ye says. “For instance, sensor embedded muscle implants could one day help patients to regain control of their dysfunctional leg. A wired ear can improve the hearing of patients who lost hearing power.” There are great opportunities for researchers and patients in developing advanced manufacturing.
Dr. Boaz Arzi, a dental surgeon and UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine researcher, says he has seen it first hand. He uses TEAM’s technology regularly for his most challenging cases.
“This 3D printing has jump-started our program to reach different heights,” Arzi says. “We’re receiving cases from all over the nation and one case internationally.” Arzi says he can use a 3D-printed model of the patient’s jaw to customize reconstruction before surgery. That, Arzi says, is how TEAM started with cases such as the now-famous jaw reconstruction for the dog Whiskey. This technology is also used for trauma cases, like gunshot wounds, he says, and can be used for spinal surgeries or to correct limb deformities.
This technological advance, Arzi says, has reduced surgery failure and complication rates as well as anesthesia time for patients and length of surgeries.
“It’s extremely precise and incredible,” he says. “This technology is limitless and will go as far as the brain can create it.”