Pediatric spinal cord treatment yields scholarship for postdoc

September 28, 2018

After Johnathan George survived an encounter with an autoimmune liver disease which lead to a liver transplant in 2007, he refocused his life to pursue a doctorate in Interdisciplinary Studies with Specialization in Translational Bioengineering. As a graduate fellow in Dr. Tommy Roussel’s BioInstrumentation and Controls Research & Development, in collaboration with Dr. Andrea Behrman, Dept of Neurosurgery, Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center, George is working to help children suffering from spinal trauma to gain the ability to sit again. It was through that research that George received the Crawford Scholar award for Summer 2018, a research fellowship by the Todd Crawford Foundation.

“After you’ve had a liver transplant, it’s like a second chance at life; I’ve got someone else’s liver inside of me. If I hadn’t gotten it, it would’ve gone to someone else who needed it,” said George. “It gives you a feeling of responsibility, to do something meaningful with this second chance.”

George received the Crawford Scholarship to help fund his research, which involves augmenting novel, science-based therapies to promote recovery in children with spinal cord injuries. Patients with spinal cord injuries often have paralysis of leg, trunk, and arm muscles.

Paralysis means that to sit, a patient must use an external support such as a wheelchair back or rely on their arms to hold themselves up. The core muscles in their trunk are paralyzed or too weak to help them sit upright.

This is an especially challenging obstacle with children, who still have developing skeletal structures and are thus at great risk for developing scoliosis, a curvature of the spine often requiring surgery.

While children respond to ‘activity-based locomotor training’ provided daily to activate the muscles below the lesion, including the trunk, George is working on a method to allow children to use these newly engaged postural muscles in a home setting that is accessible and enjoyable to the child.

His mechanism is based upon a rocking chair or swing design, where a small amount of energy can produce an equally small, but repetitive energy from the motion. Because of that repetitive input, it allows someone with very little muscle control to build up and develop that motion, allowing them the steps to self-train beyond the clinic.

“When they move, someone with a spinal cord injury still has a functioning nervous system below the injury. It’s just that the signals either from the brain or from the sensory system may not cross the injury site. The spinal cord receives inputs from the sensory organs, the skin and muscles sensors. You have all these different sensors that would normally go up to your brain,” said George. “Your spinal cord has a significant amount of processing power all by itself.”

In his youth, George wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. Moving towards STEM, he went into mechanical engineering to satisfy his interest in fixing things, solving problems, and making things. He had a drive to create things that had a lasting impact on the world around him, and mechanical engineering offered him that opportunity as the precursor to the then burgeoning field of bioengineering.

“I remember designing wheelchairs. I never did anything with it back then, but it’s always been an interest of mine. The thing that finally happened was that my wife got a job working at the Cardiovascular Innovation Institute here," said George. "When I got to Louisville, I looked into the school, and found that there was a PhD program in Bioengineering.”

The Crawford Scholarship is a renewable award totaling $3,000, which George has already received and applied towards much needed supplies.

“It pays for materials, equipment, and instrumentation. I think I can build our first prototype device that is usable by the therapists at Frasier,” said George. “The Crawford Scholar award, provided by a local businessman thru the Todd Crawford Foundation, serves as a needed start-up fund for research conducted by graduate and post-doctoral students and medical students targeting recovery after spinal cord injury in children”.

If interested in the Crawford Scholar Fund, please contact

Melvin to Receive Career Development Award

August 2, 2018


 Currently working on a doctorate of philosophy in interdisciplinary studies: specialization in translational bioengineering, Alexa Melvin recently received the Biomedical Engineering Society Career Development Award. According to the BMES site, the award helps “graduate students, postdoctoral fellow, and early career professionals from underrepresented populations in biomedical engineering or involved in research and training focused on health disparities and minority health in biomedical engineering.”

Melvin, who currently works closely with Dr. Tommy Roussel, and who has an abstract at the conference, will present a poster presentation. Through this opportunity hopes to build connections with other industry professionals.

“I know that recently Dr. Roussel has mentioned a couple of people in the field who might be good to work for, so if they’re down there, it will be nice to meet them,” said Melvin. “Otherwise, I’m just going to see what there is to see and learn about cool research in the field.

Since arriving at the Speed School, Melvin has worked with computer simulations in comsol multi-physics to help develop a micro-fluidic platform to passively prepare plasma samples from whole blood. Through her efforts with Roussel, Melvin has become increasingly engaged in the local bioengineering community.

“I started working in Dr. Roussel’s class after working in his lab. I really enjoy his enthusiasm with his student’s success. He’s working with Dr. Nichola Garbett at the James Graham Brown Cancer Center,” said Melvin. “She has this technology to work on cancers and autoimmune diseases. And he thought this would be good technology to learn on.”

A native of Topeka, KS, Melvin relocated to St. Louis University, where she received her Bachelor of Science in Biomedical Engineering. Community service was a strong component of her time as an undergraduate, which led her to help develop a low cost solar cooker system to be implemented in Haiti or other lower income countries to reduce the number of trees they had to cut down. Later she volunteered at the Casa de Salud, a free medical clinic that afforded healthcare to immigrants, an experience that she carries with her still.

“One of the things that brought me to Speed School, I was looking for a program that had clinical research,” said Melvin. “I wanted to continue that work, being able to see your work impact patients.”

She will receive the award at the annual BMES conference in Atlanta, GA, October 17-20.

Tompkins ties for first in Medical Device Entrepreneur’s Forum

July 20, 2018

 Landon Tompkins was awarded first place in the 7th Annual Medical Device Entrepreneur’s Forum at the American Society of Artificial and Internal Organs conference in June. The competition entails the development and presentation of a new product, which was then pitched to a panel of judges in a 'Shark Tank' style competition.

Tompkins is a student in the Interdisciplinary Studies in Translational Bioengineering (ISSTBE) PhD program. Through his research in cardiovascular technology, he developed the Uniti Connect, a suture-less anastomotic device, which was presented at the conference. Uniti is a less-invasive, cost efficient, quick connect system to attach an outflow graft to the aorta during a Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD) implantation procedure.

“They’ve used the same implantation techniques for a long time," said Tompkins. “This device quickly attaches the outflow graft onto the aorta without sutures. Uniti was developed to satisfy an unmet clinical need in LVAD implantations. It allows for a shorter, less-invasive, and overalls after surgical procedure.”

He was tasked with writing a short, 250-word, business plan that summarized the technology, it’s use, market size, and clinical need, etc. The top three submissions were selected for presentation at the conference. Tompkins gave a 10-minute presentation in front of a panel of judges, which ended with a question and answer session in front of the audience. The panel included an employee from the FDA, a cardiothoracic surgeon who has developed a lot of technologies, and a venture capitalist that specifically invests in medical devices.

Tompkins has primarily worked to build more efficient techniques for pre-existing treatments, and his work with the outflow connection on the LVAD is no different.

“The first thing really is to make a repeatable procedure. All you have to do is cut a hole and deploy this thing," Tompkins said. "The big selling point for a company or a hospital, is that it reduces operation time. It reduces any potential adverse effects and it will lead to better clinical outcomes for patients.”

Tompkins helped develop a company, titled MAST Inc., to help pitch the product. The company includes Tompkins' PhD chair Dr. Steve Koenig, Bioengineering Professor and Endowed Chair of Cardiac Implant Science and Dr. Mark Slaughter, from Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery. His pitch tied for first against a company from California developing a method of alleviating migraine headaches.

Initially planning to get into aviation, his educational and professional careers took a turn towards medical technology through his co-ops. Tompkins earned bachelor's and master's degrees in Mechanical Engineering. After graduation, he was employed by SCR Inc. Working with mechanical circulatory assist devices, Tompkins looked to the next step in his career, joining the Advanced Heart Failure Research Group at the Cardiovascular Innovation Institute in 2015. It was through his relationships there, primarily with Koenig, that he was encouraged to return for his doctorate in Bioengineering.

“The plan was to form a new company with Dr. Koenig and Dr. Mark Slaughter, who will be on my PhD committee, and a few other individuals," said Tompkins. "This is kind of the reason that I came back to get my PhD, so that I could continue the work that I did at SCR, but in a new venture.”

“Growing up, I was all about aviation. I wanted to be a fighter pilot. I was going to go into aerospace engineering. I ended up going into Mechanical Engineering, because someone told me it was a broader field of study,” said Tompkins. “I thought I was going to work for UPS in their Airlines division following my co-ops there, but my buddy was at SCR and they were looking to hire part-time help. I started working over there and got to know Dr. Paul Spence. We worked really well together. It turned into a great career in device development. I'm excited to continue that work after graduation.”

O’Toole helps develop, license cancer treatment

July 20, 2018

Headshot of Dr. Martin O'Toole

Dr. Martin O’Toole, assistant professor of bioengineering, is part of a team of researchers who recently licensed their intellectual property to Qualigen Inc., a medical technology company in Carlsbad, CA. Working with Drs. Paula Bates and Tariq Malik, O’Toole was part of the team that designed an anti-nucleolin agent-conjugated nanoparticle, which serves as a delivery mechanism for an aptamer-based anticancer drug that can be used to treat virtually any type of cancer.

Bates discovered the aptamer, AS1411, that interferes with cancer cells without damaging healthy cells. When clinical trials met with mixed, but promising results, Bates and her colleague Malik began their work with O’Toole, who in 2008 was then completing his post-doctoral studies. The low efficacy in human trials indicated that either the aptamer was quickly excreted or that it might break down before reaching the cancer, ergo the need for a delivery platform. He was tasked with attaching AS1411 to a nanoparticle that could serve as an scaffold for the DNA.

“If you put this on a nanoparticle, it’s more effective and more potent. So we’ve been developing this, but they could only make a little of this as a time,” said O’Toole. “In our lab, we’ve developed a way to make lots of these nanoparticles reproducibly and cost effectively.”

The idea was initially to utilize gold particles, which are easy to control and relatively benign. As a secondary attribute, the use of nanoparticles as the delivery platform allows opportunities to add other agents into the mix and coating, e.g. cancer drugs that can be administered as an auxiliary objective to aid in the process.

With AS1411 already through phase one of clinical trials, the short term goal is to continue forward with the aid of their industrial partner at Qualigen Inc., through further testing. Qualigen, who have licensed several patents related to this property, will oversee the continued research and development of the aptamer and nanoparticles, including regulatory approval and commercialization of the treatment.

Once trials have been completed, the aptamer has a chance of being utilized on test subjects, which ultimately the team hopes to see in cancer treatment centers where it can have the most positive impact on the community.

“It’s exciting, because it could potentially work with most types of cancer. We just want to find the best formulation of this stuff," said O’Toole. "The most effective formulation. We can change the particle size, how much DNA or other agents are coated in there. That’s the next goal is to figure out what is the optimum medicine. It’s nice to have this chance.”

Accident or Abuse: Bertocci awarded NIJ grant for research into child injuries

May 22, 2018

headshot of Dr. Gina BertocciDr. Gina Bertocci recently received a grant for $599,876 from the National Institute of Justice for her research into, “Biomechanical characterization of video recorded short distance falls in children.” The project is aimed to provide forensic data to help identify the causes of trauma in young children who may not be able to communicate instances of abuse. Bertocci’s research looks to even the field, not only serving to identify victims of physical abuse, but to aid parents who were wrongly accused.

“We know that falls do happen and those falls sometimes do produce injuries. We also know that the history of the fall is that the fall is the most commonly given excuse by caregivers to hide abuse,” Bertocci said. “We want to be able to intervene early for those kids who have been abused.”

Attending the University of Pittsburgh for the entirety of her education, she began a professional relationship with Dr. Mary Clyde Pierce, a medical practitioner who called upon Bertocci’s background in mechanical and bioengineering. It was through that encounter that Bertocci’s work, which followed her to the Speed School, in helping clinicians to better understand pediatric injury and to use engineering techniques for early detection of child abuse.

Since focusing her research on pediatric injury, she has been requested at various times to serve as a an expert witness. Through those experiences, Bertocci’s research has evolved to fill the gaps both from a clinical and forensics perspective to delineate between abuse and accidents, specific to falls, the most commonly attributed cause of injury in cases of suspected abuse.

For her newest research, Bertocci is working with a local daycare to capture, safely and with parental permission, video of children falling in a controlled environment.  

“We use crash test dummies," said Bertocci. "We have studies that are ongoing where we are working with clinicians working with children who have come into an ER setting, to better understand a lot of injuries associated with a fall.”

As part of that process, her team have selected a location that features a variety of surfaces, which can account for any potential differences upon impact, as well as mounted head cameras, that can help identify the velocity of a fall from standing position. It’s through that data, along with several other factors, that Bertocci hopes to develop a database for future use in legal or criminal cases.

“There is an absence of evidence-based data, which has led to a controversy in biomechanical compatibility. Our goal is to improve the accuracy in forensic biomechanical compatibility," Bertocci said. "In order to plug this gap, related to not having witnessed short distanced falls, how can we fill that gap? The one way is to video record kids in a natural setting. And to capture them in a natural environment, while they’re playing.”

Ultimately, this research allows Bertocci to help children without a voice, by providing reproducible evidence to a common problem in distinguishing abuse from an accident, which is often difficult to determine with children who are not only incapable of communication, but are still developing their basic motor skills.

“The children who are at greatest risk are those who are between 0-1 year old and they are not able to communicate." said Bertocci. "They’re choosing the study. Even when you’re 1-3 years old, there is still, I think, 74% of abuse victims were children who are less than 3 years old.”

El-Baz Receives NIH Grant for Renal Research

May 17, 2018

 Bioengineering Chair Dr. Ayman El-Baz is leading a team of researchers working on a non-invasive computer aided diagnosis system to detect acute renal transplant rejection. The project, entitled ‘Big Data in Acute Renal Rejection,’ is designed to minimize not only the efficiency, but the cost of determining the viability of a transplant by integrating MRI image analyses with clinical biomarkers.

“The current technology, it uses biopsy. But there is the cost of the biopsy is more than 20K," said El-Baz. "The blood, it shows abnormality. There is no technique. We use a blood test. Basically, right now, we need to develop something that is non-invasive, and inexpensive. Biopsies are very expensive.”

Even if matched prior to an invasive surgery, a kidney may be rejected by the host after the operation. El-Baz hopes to employ his research to help determine in a non-intrusive and affordable way for both the patient and medical industry, the viability of a transplant.

A collaboration with the University of Michigan and University of Mansoura in Egypt, who the University recently completed a memorandum of understanding with, the project is funded by a substantial NIH grant that has previously seen proof of concept funding in the past. El-Baz hopes to use input images from an MRI Scanner to detect perfusion and diffusion parameters, using a machine learning fusion system to determine if a kidney qualifies as a non-rejection, or if the transplanted organ is suffering acute rejection.

Building on his background in bioimaging, new probability models, and model-based algorithms, he explains, “This is another way of using AI to advance the finding in the field of medicine.”

UofL signs MoU with Mansoura University

May 2, 2018

 Last week, the University of Louisville and Mansoura University in Egypt were united through a Memorandum of Understanding, signed by interim Provost Dr. Dale Billingsley. The MoU builds a community between the two universities, which now are set to offer joint degree programs, while fostering research and collaboration between both. The MoU, which affords opportunities for multi-cultural exchange, was spearheaded by Dr. Ayman El-Baz of the Department of Bioengineering with help by Dr. Guruprasad Anapathur Giridharan. 

“The MoU and the following programs will enhance UofL research and scholarly productivity, UofL reputation and recognition, and revenue, fister cultural exchange, and help train future scholars and thought leaders in Egypt,” said Giridharan.

The relationship between the Speed School and Mansoura University will provide access to a high caliber of international students, students who are either self-funded or who receive access to government scholarships. Additionally, it will help expedite the reciprocal share of data, including access to information from Mansoura medical centers, which contains large data sets integral to developing and validating big data approaches to medicine.

The MoU has already yielded results, intellectual property and manuscripts for the department of Bioengineering, and promises to enrich all parties involved. In addition to the already robust relationships established specifically between Bioengineering and Mansoura, Dr. Adel Elmaghraby, the chair of the Department of Computer Engineering and Computer Science was present as well, expanding the collaboration beyond the confines of any one field of discipline.

According to Giridharan, this is only the beginning.

“We have letters of intent from other international universities and the BE department is currently in discussions with five international universities to sign MoUs, The chair of Abu Dhabi University came to visit us last week and the Dean of Abu Dhabi university is expected to visit the BE department in May.”