Moritz Team Racing for Innovation Money

Posted by Sam Maddox in Research News on June 30, 2016 # Research, Assistive Technology

The Chet Moritz laboratory at the University of Washington, teamed with an international group of researchers at the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering (CSNE) based at UW, is one of three finalists in a race to produce an implantable wireless device that can assess, stimulate and block the activity of nerves that control organs.

The Moritz lab, one of seven in the Reeve Foundation International Research Consortium on Spinal Cord Injury, has already been awarded $1.2 million for its participation in the GlaxoSmithKline Bioelectronics Innovation Challenge, and his team stands to win another million if they are the first group to build a device that can stimulate and control the bladder of a mouse or rat.

Moritz’s team includes researchers from MIT, The University of Cambridge and University College of London, including James Fawcett, whose lab in Cambridge is another of the Reeve Consortium members.

To learn more about Moritz and his work, check out this story I wrote for Progress in Research, a Reeve newsletter.

From a UW press release:

The CSNE team at UW is using a wireless power transmitter developed by CSNE leader and UW associate professor of electrical engineering and of computer science and engineering Joshua Smith. A similar technology is being used by Smith’s new company WiBotic Corp. to manufacture wireless power systems for robots and drones.

They designed the wireless device to interact with a rat’s pelvic nerve in one of two ways — both electronically and optically. Moritz and team member Greg Horwitz, UW associate professor of physiology and biophysics, have expertise in optogenetics, which uses light to control neurons. That approach may enable the team to stimulate the pelvic nerve without having to physically touch it, which may reduce swelling and scarring that can occur with direct nerve interfaces.

The University of Cambridge and University College of London researchers have deep expertise in nerve and bladder physiology, as well as packaging implantable devices so they don’t corrode or breakdown in the body’s moist and dynamic environment.

Moritz says the electronics piece of the puzzle is less daunting than connecting a small device to very small nerves in a small animal. The UW team has already refined its device – it’s about the size of a Lollipop and code named the same (it sort of resembles one). “We are confident in our ability to build the hardware,” says Moritz. “The physiological aspect – having the device work in a small animal for eight weeks, that is very challenging.”

Though the race is sponsored by a big pharma company, Moritz wants to bypass drugs altogether.

From the UW media office:

The competition’s big idea is to replace pharmaceuticals, which can affect many systems throughout the body, with wireless devices that enable much more targeted interventions by stimulating or blocking the activity of specific nerves that send signals to organs. These devices could also “read” how the organs are functioning and decide whether any treatment action is necessary at that moment.

“We want to be able to say, ‘Right now the blood pressure is high or the bladder is full — does the device need to do something or can the body be left alone?'” said Moritz. “That dramatically lowers the amount of treatment that’s needed, as opposed to having someone on a drug 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

A big part of the competition is to move stimulation devices into the research community for further study, and perhaps, to the marketplace as therapies.

Says Moritz, the goal is to build a platform of devices that can modify autonomic function in humans. The UW model hopes to show that bladder control is a treatable aspect of spinal cord injury. The platform could also address diabetes, for example. “Others have shown that blocking the carotid sinus may reduce some of the metabolic issues with diabetes, such as weight gain. That could affect 440 million people who have that condition,” says Moritz. Future directions include investigating whether nerve stimulation can improve blood pressure.

Moritz hopes his device platform is ready to be disseminated within the year. From there he says he will work with GSK, industry partners and other stakeholders to figure out how to distribute the device to the research community for widespread use.

“The idea is that many groups could be pushing towards different human applications at the same time — not just for the bladder but for any organ. So our platform needs to be robust enough that people can dream wildly about what they want to treat with neural devices rather than pharmaceuticals,” says Moritz.

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