David Borton creates implantable devices class

Bringing together experts across the wide array of engineering and health science fields and demonstrating the importance each one brings, Assistant Professor David Borton created the class Implantable Devices, illustrating how communication and input from multiple areas is key to generating a final product.

David Borton yearned for a graduate class like ENGN2912R at Brown when he began work on his Ph.D. in 2006: A course designed to expose students to topics across the electrical and biological sciences, and covering basic governing concepts of implantable device. The assistant professor of neuroengineering emphasizes to students that no one can be a wizard of all fields, but one can be a master of communication when it comes to coordinating the efforts of how power needs, compatible materials, and biological requirements and constraints can come together in an efficient way to aid human health.

“The idea was to bring all the specialties together: electrical, materials, mechanical and bioengineering. I gave lectures introducing critical concepts, then brought in field experts who donated their time to dig deeply into topics,” Borton noted. “Over the course of the semester I wanted to focus on and create the specifications for one implantable device. The theme we chose for this first class was a device for bladder control following a spinal cord injury—an unmet need of this patient population.”

The class was broken down into four distinct parts during the semester, starting simply with an assessment of needs. For this, the class needed to have an understanding of how the nervous system works to regulate the bladder. Dr. Adetokunbo Oyelese, assistant professor in the department of Neurosurgery and the Assistant Program Director of the Neurosurgery Residency Program of the Warren Alpert Medical School at Brown, was the first lecturer to lend his expertise. Oyelese is best known regionally for the care he gave the eight Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus workers who suffered devastating injuries in a 20–foot fall as part of the human chandelier act at Providence’s Dunkin’ Donuts Center in 2014.

“Dr. Oyelese stood out from many interesting speakers,” said Ryan Carlson, Sc.M. ’16, a solids concentrator. “He shared the problems he faced during surgery, hoping the information he provided would lead to better care solutions and devices for his patients. You could tell when he spoke about his patients that he truly cared about their well-being.”

Part of why this class was so fun for me to teach was that the different backgrounds (of the students) led to many different approaches to the problems.

David Borton Assistant Professor of Engineering

Soon after the class moved into the phase of determining how the device could be hermetically packaged, giving the needed capabilities with the needed efficacy. Brown engineering’s own Professor Anubhav Tripathi was one of the biocompatibility professionals brought in to speak.

“Part of why this class was so fun for me to teach,” Borton said, “was that the different backgrounds of the students led to many different approaches to the problems.” The mechanicals concentrators focused on physical placement and redesign, and the electricals concentrators thought in terms of optimized circuitry. I think mixing the experts with the students, and getting the students comfortable talking directly with the experts across a range of topics, was one of my goals. The guests seemed to appreciate the opportunity to interact with students.”

Heather Dunn, technology director at CIRTEC Medical, visited the class with samples of her company’s products, and was another of Carlson’s favorites: “Ms. Dunn made her lecture very interactive, asking the students why this broke, or why this was a bad device. She spoke in great detail on how to make implantable devices better and what factors needed to be considered to create the best possible solutions.”

Once the design began taking shape, the surgical approach was addressed by Dr. Moses Goddard, among others. Goddard is an adjunct associate professor of molecular pharmacology, physiology and biotechnology at Brown, and former general surgeon at Rhode Island Hospital, where he served for more than 25 years. He is regarded as a world leader in developing novel surgical procedures for the implantation of bioartificial organs and devices. “We had the design, now we needed to know how to get it in the body, which involves design constraints, and minimizing damage to the tissues in the body,” Borton said.

Finally, the class discussed gaining U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval, and learning how the science is evaluated and regulated with implantable devices. At this time, the FDA is still collecting input from researchers and professionals concerning brain–controlled interfaces, as the field is evolving rapidly. “I would love for this class to be longer than one semester, and for it to have a real device component,” Borton said. “This is a field that is growing, and if we (Brown) are going to be innovative in teaching, we’ll have to continue to evolve quickly to be in the forefront.”

Borton knows of what he speaks. The research in the Borton lab continues to grow, and he was recently awarded a Young Faculty Award from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The objective of the DARPA Young Faculty Award is to identify and engage rising research stars in junior faculty positions and introduce them to the Department of Defense’s needs, so they develop their research ideas in the context of DoD needs. Borton’s lab is working to restore sensation and balance after a lower limb loss. “Obviously, the defense department is interested in this because of wounded warriors. There has been a lot of work on upper limbs, including our BrainGate work – Brown’s diverse, collaborative team of neurologists, neuroscientists, engineers, computer scientists, neurosurgeons, mathematicians and others – all focused on developing technologies to restore the communication, mobility, and independence of people with neurologic disease, injury or limb loss. We’ve researched motion control and haptic sensations in the upper limbs to know the sensory difference when a person picks up a grape versus picking up keys. But the lower limbs have basically been neglected.

This is a field that is growing, and if we (Brown) are going to be innovative in teaching, we’ll have to continue to evolve quickly to be in the forefront.

“It’s a different beast,” Borton explains. “We don’t look at our feet when we walk. There’s a tactile, visual component to our upper limbs that is not there in the more automated process of walking. When we walk, it’s more of a high-level plan, using an internal mechanism for balance symmetry, and how the nerve fibers, tendons, and joints interconnect.” Borton and his lab are looking to answer how to put a prosthetic limb with built-in sensors back into the nervous system, so that the spinal cord can process the information, and restore the sensation of where the limb is in space.

ENGN 2912R’s future looks promising, as well. “Working on a single complex problem with 30-plus grad students, all of whom are extremely talented, allows you to gain greater understanding of the interactions across all the engineering disciplines,” Carlson said. “Addressing a real-world problem, and not a theoretical one, added a level of importance that the work we did may lead to a potential solution. I greatly looked forward to the Tuesday and Thursday lectures and I will miss attending that class every week. It is not often you find that type of class at a school. What a great experience!”