Microelectronics and medicine

Charles Sodini believes microelectronics will change medicine. With state-of-the-art mixed-signal integrated circuits, miniaturized and mobile medical devices may reduce the time to detect disease, inform clinical decisions, and improve care—all at significantly lower cost.

“Most people know how computers changed from ‘big boxes’ to personal computers, and how cell phones and digital cameras evolved . . . driven, in part, by microelectronics,” says Sodini, LeBel Professor of Electrical Engineering at IMES and Principal Investigator (PI) in Microsystems Technology Laboratories (MTL). “So I’m working on medical devices: trying to measure physiologically relevant parameters and using data analytics to provide actionable health information.”

Sodini founded and leads the Medical Electronic Device Realization Center (MEDRC) along with co-directors Brian Anthony and Joel Voldman. A core initiative of IMES, the highly collaborative center innovates low-cost medical devices, including minimally invasive monitors, point-of-care instruments, ultrasound imaging, and body-area-networks. Research is conducted with a “zero secrets” mindset.

“Everybody talks to everybody,” says Sodini. “Information is free-flowing between clinicians, companies’ visiting scientists, and students. It’s all problem-driven—what we call ‘pre-competitive research.'”

With Voldman’s expertise in Lab on a Chip and point-of-care systems, and Anthony’s award-winning background in product realization, Sodini says the three “were rookies who mobilized” to change medicine. The creation of IMES “was a godsend” and “how MEDRC got involved with more hospitals,” he adds.

“I’ve said, ‘Boston should be the Silicon Valley of medical devices,’ but I actually think it could be bigger than that. If you take the hospitals, industry, MIT, Harvard, other schools—we have the hard infrastructure and educated people to solve many healthcare problems.”

Working collaborations

IMES/MEDRC partners with Boston Children’s Hospital and Boston Medical Center for Thomas Heldt’s research in intracranial pressure monitoring without surgery. The team seeks to develop ultrasound transducers to noninvasively measure arterial blood pressure and cerebral blood flow velocity, then inputs this data into Heldt’s algorithm to estimate intracranial pressure.

“Imagine a wearable device: you put it on, it finds the mid-cerebral artery, and tracks transcranial Doppler measurement to give you cerebral blood flow velocity as a function of time for as long as you want to monitor it,” says Sodini. “People think of ultrasound as big machines, like in pregnancy imaging. Those are cool, but expensive. Microelectronics enables ultrasound to be small and inexpensive for so many different applications.”

Another IMES collaboration is the MIT/MGH Strategic Partnership, jointly headed by Sodini and Massachusetts General Hospital Pathologist-in-Chief David Louis, MD. Grants for “Grand Challenge #1: Diagnostics” include: measuring fluid blood volume using nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), machine-learning analysis of lab results, and nanosensors to evaluate liver damage.

“We’ve built a joint community with MGH that’s making tremendous progress,” says Sodini. “The PIs give talks to colleagues every six months . . . so it’s managed mostly by peer pressure. Our colleagues ask some really tough questions.”

Lessons in entrepreneurship

Meanwhile, Sodini is also faculty director of the MIT Hong Kong Innovation Node, which launched in June 2016 with MIT Kickstart, a weeklong, “mini-accelerator program” in Hong Kong and Shenzhen.

“Hong Kong has very good universities and the region is quite adept at scaling up prototypes and manufacturing in Shenzhen and the Pearl River Delta,” says Sodini. “The Node really is its own startup. It’s not about ‘how many companies can we create?’ It has an educational mission, coupling students from MIT with students from Hong Kong to teach entrepreneurship and making. The students form teams, define a product that satisfies customers’ needs, develop a business pitch, and design and fabricate proof-of-concept demos.”

Such learning immersion is vital, says Sodini. He credits hands-on training and “a lot of luck” with his own career.

“When I graduated from Purdue, I threw my stuff in the car and drove to San Francisco, where I’d had a summer job at HP—this is in the 70s, when Mr. Hewlett and Mr. Packard were there—and I said, “I’m here now. I’ve got 28 cents.’

“For me, the students are the most important. To help them learn by doing, not just talking in theory. Providing the flexibility—the options—to do whatever they want. Whether it’s start a company or go to Wall Street or toil at the university, I just want to give them whatever they need.”