The W. M. Keck Foundation of Los Angeles has awarded $1 million to support the University of Rochester's Center for Future Health, where engineers and physicians are working together to create technologies people can use in their own homes to maintain their health. The grant provides start-up funds to enable faculty members, graduate students and other researchers to begin work on approximately 10 projects.
The funds come at a crucial time, as about two dozen researchers have recently begun working together to use recent advances in technology as the basis of "smart," inexpensive medical tools. So far Eastman Kodak Co. has signed on as a sponsor, along with Infocharms, a California-based company with expertise in wearable computers. Intel Corp. and Microsoft Corp. have also funded projects since the center was created last year by engineers from the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and physicians at the School of Medicine and Dentistry, along with researchers from the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
While it's not uncommon for engineers and physicians to work together, center participants are taking the collaboration one step further: They're keeping ordinary individuals in mind from the start, developing devices that are inexpensive and easy to use in the home.
"One of our chief goals is that ordinary consumers should be able to use this technology," says physician Alice Pentland, medical director of the center and James H. Sterner Professor and Chair of the Department of Dermatology. "Usually when engineering expertise comes to medicine, the health care professional is the customer. We're hoping to change that. With intelligence built right into easy-to-use devices, it should be possible for people to take a more active role in maintaining their health.
"We're thrilled that the Keck Foundation is devoting the resources necessary to allow scientists to perform some of the basic research that's needed to ultimately bring new technologies into the home," she adds.
The Keck funding will enable engineers to explore technologies such as artificial intelligence, fiber optics, "smart" bandages, and wearable computers. Basic knowledge in these fields forms the foundation for a variety of futuristic devices. One group of computer scientists is working on a personal digital assistant that might help a person keep anger under control; that device would rely on complex formulas to understand the tone of a person's voice as well as the words spoken. Also under development is the "rehab trainer," a gadget that helps a person with a shoulder injury do physical-therapy exercises correctly, and "memory glasses" that could help an elderly person identify people and objects. Both rely on complex software that enables a computer to recognize patterns.
One of the most advanced projects is a "melanoma monitor," where scientists in the Body Imaging Laboratory use multiple cameras to create a three-dimensional image of the skin. Computer scientist Kyros Kutulakos, an assistant professor in both the departments of dermatology and computer science, heads the effort to develop a skin-mapping device that would track changes on the surface of the skin and alert a person if, for instance, a mole has suddenly begun to grow. Such monitoring today is done mainly by physicians and nurses during office visits.
"Right now, health care is centered around traditional hospital-based medical disciplines; our approach tries to decentralize health care delivery and put it in the hands of the individual," says Center Director Philippe Fauchet, professor and chair of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
"When you're admitted to the hospital, what's the first thing that happens? You have to put on a hospital gown," says Fauchet. "Already, you have to adapt to the hospital system. At home, you do it your way - no one else can tell you what to do. You should not have to change your lifestyle to stay in the best of health."
The W. M. Keck Foundation was founded in 1954 by W. M. Keck. Reflecting his life as a pioneer, innovator and risk-taker, the foundation seeks out research that opens new directions and could lead to breakthrough discoveries and the development of new technologies. The foundation carries out this goal by funding projects at colleges, universities, medical schools and independent medical research institutions throughout the United States.