The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Feature Stories

Digitizing Biology

Engineers design new diagnostic and imaging technologies for personalized health monitoring
  • Salthouse and graduate student Akshaya Shanmugam with 3D printed imaging jig

The new technology will be a key component of hand-held sensors capable of quickly testing biological samples in the field or home.

Imagine a computerized toothbrush capable of routinely testing saliva for glucose and cholesterol levels, a basketball jersey capable of measuring heart rate and blood pressure, or a bottle of sunscreen that tests for UV rays and indicates how much sunscreen to apply. Utilizing the power and potential of integrated circuits, electrical engineer Christopher Salthouse is beginning to conceptualize such devices.

Since arriving at UMass Amherst in 2009, Salthouse has founded the Biomedical Electronics Lab, tackled a major National Science Foundation (NSF) project on biomedical imaging and has taken a leadership role in developing a range of new technologies that could transform the way health is monitored. In the Biomedical Electronics Lab, Salthouse and his colleagues are using powerful integrated circuits to develop new technologies that address a range of biomedical needs—from molecular imaging to medical implants and diagnostics. These technologies include probes that can move within biological systems, advanced data collection and transmission, and new diagnostic tools that can be used for analyzing biological samples.

In one project funded by NSF, Salthouse and his research team are developing an advanced biomedical imaging system to replace the existing generation of fluorescence microscopes. Fluorescence is routinely used to analyze an array of biological samples as a means of marking certain cells, tissues or proteins, yet current technologies are costly and highly complex.

“The more I learned about fluorescence, the more I saw that we’ve got this great technology for tagging different molecules, but our technology for reading these tags is pretty limited,” Salthouse says.

Salthouse’s technology will eliminate the optical system (the lenses and filters) and replace it with an integrated circuit that captures light from the fluorophores.  While incorporating all the same functions of a fluorescent microscope, the new technology will be both much more sensitive and compact—a piece of equipment the size of a computer chip. Unwieldy fluorescence microscopes are typically sold for $20,000 or more, yet Salthouse’s portable technology will cost no more than $50. Salthouse and the team are working on the technical challenge of timing and framing the snapshot, as the camera must be capable of measuring light at a tenth of a nanosecond. The new technology will be a key component of hand-held sensors capable of quickly testing biological samples in the field or home.

“Once it’s designed, it will be no more complicated than the camera chip that sits in your cell phone. The tricky part is figuring out how to design it so that it has these functions that are so important,” Salthouse explains.

Since graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he focused on designing cochlear implants for the hearing impaired, and completing his postdoctoral work at Mass General Hospital, Salthouse has sought to apply his engineering skills to develop new technologies that address medical needs. His expertise and passion for biotechnology is opening up a range of new applications that help “digitize biology.”

The cutting edge biomedical research offers graduate engineering students invaluable experience. Not only are they learning about circuitry, but they also are learning first-hand how to apply that technology to real-world challenges and to collaborate with researchers across disciplines.

“I think for them it’s been really eye opening to be forced to think about circuits in a different way…it’s not all about bits on a computer, it’s really what can you do with the chip and how can you develop algorithms to solve a problem,” Salthouse says.

Amanda Drane '12