Penn joins two projects on medical cyber-physical systems

Two teams from the School of Engineering and Applied Science are participating in a pair of National Science Foundation (NSF) projects designed to advance cyber­physical systems with medical applications.

One project will combine teams of microrobots with synthetic cells to perform functions that may one day lead to tissue and organ regeneration. The other project will develop a “CyberHeart,” a virtual patient­-specific human heart model that can be used to improve and accelerate medical-device testing.

The NSF will support the projects with two five-year awards totaling $8.75 million.

Cyber­physical systems integrate computation and physical components. Penn is an international leader in the field; during the past five years, the Penn Research in Embedded Computing and Integrated Systems Engineering, or PRECISE, Center, has received funding totaling more than $30 million from the NSF and other sources.

The Penn contingent of the microrobot project will be led by Vijay Kumar, the UPS Foundation Professor with appointments in the departments of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics, Computer and Information Science, and Electrical and Systems Engineering.

Kumar, a former director of Penn’s main robotics laboratory and the GRASP Lab, and the incoming dean of Penn Engineering, will join computer scientists, roboticists, and biologists from Boston University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to develop a system that combines the capabilities of nano­scale robots with specially designed synthetic organisms.

“The GRASP lab is not just about swarms of flying robots, propelled by batteries and rotors,” Kumar says. “We can apply some of the same principles to swarms of microrobots for applications in biology and medicine.”     

Rahul Mangharam, an associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Systems Engineering and Department of Computer and Information Science, as well as a founding member of the PRECISE Center, will lead Penn’s contingent in the “CyberHeart” project. 

Health-related cyber physical systems, such as wearable sensors and implantable devices, are already being used to provide safer, more cost-effective care and could potentially speed­up disease diagnosis and aid prevention.

Extending these efforts, Mangharam will join researchers from six universities and centers to develop cardiac models that are more realistic than anything currently available. Such models are critical to improving the software that governs implantable devices, such as pacemakers, defibrillators, and cardiac rhythm therapy devices.

“There is no formal design methodology or open experimental platforms to ensure the correct operation of medical devices within a closed-loop context,” Mangharam says. “The FDA also does not review the safety of the software in medical devices. This effectively prevents software-controlled medical devices from reaching the full potential in providing the best possible patient care and reducing soaring healthcare costs.”