The Next Big Thing

Kaveh Pahlavan, professor of electrical and computer engineering, seated, and master’s candidate Umair Khan attach sensors to a mannequin used to study the characteristics of body area wireless networks.

by Joan Killough-Miller

Stem-like cells that may replace damaged or diseased tissue in the body. New approaches to making and reusing materials that could reduce waste and save energy. Wireless geolocation technology that might add a new, personal dimension to medicine and shake up the study of human behavior. All are nascent technologies with uncertain payoffs, but each has the potential to yield profoundly important — even revolutionary — breakthroughs. Meet the WPI researchers who are driving this work and learn where it’s taken them — and where it might one day take us.

Enabling a Wireless World

“Science starts with science fiction,” says Kaveh Pahlavan, noting that the handheld communicator that Captain Kirk flipped open on Star Trek was an icon for the early developers of today’s smart phones. “Science fiction is like a proposal to society, which then evolves into technology.”

Pahlavan, professor of electrical and computer engineering, studies the behavior of radio signal propagation — the basic science behind high-speed wireless networking and precise geolocation technologies. He works in multipath-rich indoor environments, where most modern wireless applications have emerged. In 1985 he founded the Center for Wireless Information Network Studies (CWINS) at WPI and received the first NSF funding granted in that area. Today Pahlavan’s work brings experts in telecommunications, public safety, and urban planning to WPI to explore the future of location-based applications for the wireless industry.

Currently, Pahlavan is bringing that science to a new frontier — the human body. Under a $1.2 million award from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), he is laying the groundwork for wireless body area networks (or BANs), which will enable a new generation of wireless devices that can travel through or be implanted in the human body. Interactive BANs would allow remote monitoring and treatment of health conditions from within the body, turning the science fiction movie Fantastic Voyage — in which a miniaturized submarine travels through the bloodstream to dissolve a blood clot in the brain — into reality.

Radio frequency (RF) propagation, Pahlavan explains, becomes very complex indoors, where the surfaces of a room act like a hall of mirrors, bouncing signals back and forth, and creating hundreds of overlapping paths. “Inside the small spaces of the human body — which is largely liquid — we don’t know how the signal will behave,” Pahlavan explains. He uses software simulations, testbeds, and “phantoms” (hollow vessels with structures that mimic the different densities of human organs) as stand-ins for live subjects in order to analyze the behavior of these signals as they pass though the human body.

In the larger world, the basic science of RF propagation modeling is vital to decision makers in the telecommunications and advertising industries, who see opportunity in the ability to analyze and predict consumer behavior. Tracking human movement and traffic pattern also holds value for urban planning, homeland security, and crowd management. Leaders in these diverse fields gathered at WPI recently for CWINS’s second International Workshop on Opportunistic Radio Frequency Localization for Next Generation Wireless Devices to discuss technology, markets, and standards for these rapidly emerging technologies.

Pahlavan compares the need for a unified understanding of the behavior of radio waveforms across any medium to the parable of an elephant in the dark being defined by “researchers” who can each feel only one part of the beast. “I want to shed true light on the elephant,” he says. “Our study of propagation gives you that light.”

Tanja Dominko, associate professor of biology and biotechnology, left, with PhD candidate Olga Kashpur.

Generating Possibilities

In Tanja Dominko’s lab, researchers are converting cells from the adult human body into stem-like cells that can regenerate healthy tissue in injured or diseased body parts. They have found ways to restore these differentiated cells almost, but not quite, back to the pluripotent state of embryonic stem cells, which are capable of differentiating into any type of tissue.

Dominko, associate professor of biology and biotechnology and president of CellThera Inc., has received an NIH EUREKA (Exceptional, Unconventional Research Enabling Knowledge Acceleration) grant, on top of funding from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Army Research Office (ARO), for her work, which holds great promise for healing combat-related injuries.

“As a species, we ‘forgot’ how to respond to an injury,” Dominko says, explaining that amphibians can grow new limbs, while humans heal by forming scar tissue that compromises function. Her investigations involve analyzing the molecular components of an extract derived from eggs of the African clawed frog (Xenopus laevis), as well as testing environmental factors that can be manipulated to induce cells to regain their developmental “memory.”

This novel approach activates genes that already exist in the cell, rather than inserting new or altered genetic material, or relying on embryonic stem cells, which carry the risk of immune rejection, tumor formation, and mutations.

A team of WPI and CellThera investigators has succeeded in turning on the stem cell genes OCT4, SOX2, and NANOG in human fibroblasts (skin cells) by lowering the amount of atmospheric oxygen the cells are exposed to, and by adding a naturally occurring protein called FGF2 (fibroblast growth factor 2) to the culture medium.

Human skin cells are shown before, left, and after manipulation, when they are becoming muscle cells.

“Once we’ve figured out how this cell type is triggered in the dish, the next logical step is to do that in the body,” Dominko says. With biomedical engineering professors at WPI, she has shown that reprogrammed cells transplanted via fibrin microthreads into skeletal muscle wounds of mice improved healing and reduced scar formation by 70 percent. Further study is needed to test the stability and functionality of the grafts, and to scale up to the level of the human body, but the potential exists to regenerate functional tissue to treat almost any disease.

This new understanding of cell plasticity could also lead to new breakthroughs in cancer treatment. “If we can go from a differentiated cell to an undifferentiated cell, it should be possible to ‘reverse engineer’ a way to intervene and control immortal cells that are replicating out of control in our bodies,” she says. “There’s a lot of biology to support it — I don’t think it’s science fiction.”

A Vision for Sustainability

Diran Apelian looks back to the Industrial Age as a time when America’s natural resources seemed infinite, and waste disposal was as simple as a nearby slag pile or stream. Today, the efficient use — and reuse — of materials is a top priority for the nation and the world. “We talk about energy as being renewable or nonrenewable, yet we forget that materials are not renewable,” he says. “There’s only so much titanium or vanadium, for example. One-third of the world’s copper is now sitting in landfills.”

Apelian, Howmet Professor of Mechanical Engineering and director of the university’s Metal Processing Institute, was appointed chair of an Energy Materials Blue Ribbon Panel commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy in 2010. The study brought together 21 thought leaders to identify research and policy priorities for a “new energy economy.”

The group’s vision report, Linking Transformational Materials and Processing for an Energy Efficient and Low- Carbon Economy, identified key areas where materials science and engineering (MSE) could have the most impact in reducing energy usage and lowering carbon emissions. Sustainable manufacturing of materials was one of four MSE technologies found to hold the most promise for reducing the energy- and carbon-intensity levels of the U.S. economy. Resource recovery and recycling was a near-term priority that would have an immediate impact. The report also called for significant investment in R&D, along with a concerted national effort to cultivate and educate the skilled workforce that will be required for the future energy sector.

Apelian jokes about centering his career on garbage, but stresses that it is a major engineering problem. With seed funding from the NSF, he founded the Center for Resource Recovery and Recycling (CR3) in 2009 in partnership with three other universities, to focus on research solutions. “If we just reduce the waste that we have presently in our buildings, our cars, our plants, we will save immensely,” he says. “We can’t just keep filling landfill after landfill when our mines are being depleted.”

“ If we just reduce the waste that we have presently in our buildings, our cars, our plants, we will save immensely. We can’t just keep filling landfill after landfill when our mines are being depleted.”
— Diran Apelian

CR3 is the nation’s first center focusing on this critical subject, he says. As the lead institution, WPI focuses on metal recycling and the whole life cycle analysis during the design stage. Colorado School of Mines explores functional materials such as rare earth metals and solar panels. The focus of Purdue University is electronic waste, and KU Leuven (in Belgium) looks at precious metals. “WPI, with these partner universities, is leading the efforts to develop recycling technologies and working on the educational and policy issues,” Apelian says.

Additionally, WPI is having a national impact, he says, through its research centers and in the classroom, where programs like the first year Great Problems Seminars help students develop a global understanding of the issues required to be responsible citizens, technologists, and leaders. “We’re influencing the nation’s policies on enabling technologies in materials science that play a role in the renewable energy economy, and identifying the materials needed for a new energy paradigm to achieve the DOE’s mission: to reduce our carbon footprint and increase our use of renewable energy.”