The National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) in Bethesda, MD, is one of the 27 institutes and centers of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the nation’s premier medical research agency. The mission of the NIBIB is to improve human health by leading the development and accelerating the application of biomedical technologies.

An ingestible sensor is equipped with bacteria programmed to sense environmental conditions and relay the information to an electronic circuit. (Lillie Paquette/MIT)

NIBIB is committed to integrating the physical and engineering sciences with the life sciences to advance basic research and medical care. Currently, NIBIB funds more than 700 grants and the work of approximately 5,000 researchers around the country and internationally. NIBIB also works with industry, academia, and other federal agencies to coordinate and promote interdisciplinary research and training. Finally, NIBIB informs healthcare providers, researchers, and the general public about research findings.

The laboratories at NIBIB conduct research using a combination of basic, translational, and clinical science. NIBIB scientists collaborate with federal, academic, and commercial researchers so the advanced technologies and tools they create can be easily and widely adopted.

Research Areas

The Division of Applied Science & Technology (Bioimaging) supports the development of biomedical imaging technologies to understand biological and disease processes for improving diagnostics, image-guided therapies, and human health. Innovations include bio-electromagnetic technologies such as high-density EEG, ingestible sensors, and tunable electric eyeglasses; bioanalytical sensors incorporating 3D-printed technology for medical tests; and ultrasound technologies such as blood-drawing robots.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) advances include a patient-friendly brain imager and artificially intelligent MRIs; optical imaging and spectroscopy technologies include a hybrid microscope for digital biopsies and imaging for heart attack prediction; and a PET tracer to identify bacterial infections.

Smart glasses are equipped with liquid-based lenses that can automatically adjust the focus on what a person is seeing, whether it is far away or close up. The lenses are placed in battery-powered frames that can automatically adjust the focal length of the lenses based on what the wearer is looking at. (Dan Hixson/University of Utah College of Engineering)

The Division of Discovery Science & Technology (Bioengineering) supports the development of mathematical and computational methods, bio-transducer technologies, and engineered systems to interface with biology to open a new paradigm of biomedical intervention for human health. Emphasis in this program is on engineering new biochemical materials, sensors, actuators, and other parts and modules to interface and communicate with human biology and engineered systems for biomedical intervention. Innovations include accelerated development and commercialization of COVID-19 testing technologies.

The Division of Health Informatics Technologies (Informatics) supports development of science and technology for processing and evaluating complex biomedical information in order to develop solutions to real-world healthcare problems. This research builds toward practical, patient-centered applications such as clinical decision-making support systems, in-home treatment monitoring, medical image improvement, image and data analysis tools, and mobile health. Innovations include computer-aided diagnosis and screening, and robotic and image-guided surgery.

Technologies

NIBIB-supported research has resulted in significant new technologies and products in a number of areas.

Point-of-Care Technologies - POC technologies bring modern medicine to remote areas and allow for more timely health-related decisions and more patient-centered healthcare delivery. These technologies improve diagnosis and treatment and help patients manage chronic disease and compensate for impaired functionality to maintain healthy, independent living.

Researchers are developing a device that can diagnose a type of cancer called Kaposi’s sarcoma in less than 30 minutes using solar energy to heat a reaction that amplifies small samples of DNA taken from a tumor, and a smartphone application to analyze and display the results. It runs on so little power that a smartphone can run it for up to 70 hours.

A unique pipette tip created with a 3D printer holds a complete ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay) to detect pathogens or biomolecules such as proteins. (Sean Flynn/UConn)

Ultrasound - Ultrasound can be used as a tool for imaging and for therapeutic intervention. Acoustic Radiation Force Impulse Imaging (ARFI) is a new technique that uses ultrasound elastography to differentiate liver tumors from healthy tissue as well as identify the presence of fibrosis. This non-invasive method could reduce unnecessary liver biopsies, which can be painful and sometimes dangerous.

Using new transducer materials and new manufacturing methods, ultrasound arrays can be produced in a manner similar to the production of computer chips. One type of new transducer called CMUTs (capacitive micromachined ultrasound transducers) is less expensive to produce, easier to manufacture as arrays, and has several advantages over standard transducers. The technology was recently used in a device developed using NIBIB funding called the GE Vscan, a palmsized ultrasound scanner with both anatomical imaging and color Doppler capability. The device is currently in clinical use and costs considerably less than a full-sized ultrasound scanner.

Drug Delivery - Drug delivery systems are engineered technologies to optimize the delivery of therapeutic agents.

Machine-learning tools can analyze biopsy data from an infrared-optical hybrid microscope to create digital versions of standard dyes (left) or to identify tissue types based on their chemical composition (right). (Credit: Rohit Bhargava/University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)

Micro-needle arrays are one example of a new method to deliver medications through the skin. In these arrays, dozens of microscopic needles - each far thinner than a strand of hair - can be coated or filled with a medicine. The needles are so small that although they penetrate the skin, they don’t reach nerves in the skin, thus delivering medications painlessly. NIBIB-funded scientists are developing a microneedle patch for vaccine delivery that is easy to use and doesn’t require refrigeration or special disposal.

Rehabilitation - Ongoing research in rehabilitation involves the design and development of new, innovative assistive devices. Recently, four individuals paralyzed below the chest were able to voluntarily move their hips, legs, ankles, and toes thanks to a rehabilitation strategy that involved electrical stimulation of their spinal cord.

An assistive technology called the Tongue Drive System (TDS) exploits the fact that even individuals with severe paralysis that impairs limb movement, breathing, and speech can still move their tongue. Simple tongue movements send commands to the computer, allowing users to steer their wheelchairs, operate their computers, and generally control their environment in an independent fashion.

The integrated exogenous antigen testing (iEAT) system gives those who suffer from food allergies a rapid, accurate device that allows them to personally test foods in less than 10 minutes. It consists of a pocket-sized detector, an electrode chip, and a disposable kit for allergen extraction. The detector connects with a smartphone for system control and data upload to a cloud server. (Credit: Lin, et al., Harvard Medical School)

As the population ages, increasing numbers of Americans are unable to live independently. NIBIB-funded researchers are working on creating smart environments that aid with home health monitoring and intervention, allowing individuals with health issues to remain safely at home.

Persons with hand amputations expect modern hand pros-theses to function like intact hands. Current state-of-the-art prosthetic hands simply control two movements: open and close. NIBIB researchers are developing new artificial hand systems that would perform complex hand motions based on measurements of the residual electrical signals from the remaining muscles of an amputee’s forearm.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging - Magnetic resonance (MR) elastography offers a more reliable alternative to liver biopsy. For the 100,000 people seen in the hospital each year for chronic liver disease, MR elastography means less risk, less pain, and less expense than traditional biopsy. Early results suggest that this noninvasive technique may also be useful for detection of breast cancer and to help distinguish cancer from a benign mass.

Bio-Imaging - NIBIB-funded researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have created an ingestible sensor to non-invasively monitor indicators of disease in the stomach and intestines. The capsule carries genetically engineered bacteria that sense specific substances in the gut. The other components built into the capsule include photo-transistors, a custom integrated circuit, a small battery, and a radio transmitter.

Machine Learning - NIBIB-funded researchers are building machine learning models to better manage blood glucose levels by using data obtained from wearable sensors that provide continuous measurements including heart rate, skin conductance, temperature, and body movements. The data will be used to train an artificial intelligence network to help predict changes in blood glucose levels before they occur.

Smart, cyber-physically assistive clothing is being developed to reduce the high prevalence of low back pain. Researchers are gathering a public data set of more than 500 movements measured from each subject to inform a machine learning algorithm. The information will be used to develop assistive clothing that can detect unsafe conditions and intervene to protect low back health.

A sensor chip records multiple lung and heart signals along with body movements and could enable a future socially distanced health monitor. (Georgia Tech/Ayazi lab)

Image-Guided Robotic Intervention - NIBIB-funded scientists are developing a portable, lightweight medical robot to help draw blood. The device uses 3D near-infrared imaging to identify an appropriate vein for the robot to insert the needle. The current goal is to integrate the imaging system and software into a miniaturized version of the prototype robot. The outcome will be a compact, low-cost system that will greatly improve the safety and accuracy of accessing veins.

Optical Imaging - Scientists are building a miniature scanning laser microscope that can identify skin cancer cells and can also be attached to an endo-scope to examine cells on the epithelium of the oral cavity, GI tract, and elsewhere. The device combines high-resolution images showing cellular detail with wide-field color video images of the surrounding tissue. The instrument will improve early cancer diagnosis.

Cerebral palsy affects a child’s ability to develop typical motor skills and to engage fully in play and routine daily activities. Functional near infrared (fNIR) imaging is being used to detect brain activation patterns in the cortex, located at the top of the skull. The images will allow researchers to identify strong cortical activation patterns, which indicate a positive response to therapies.

Regenerative Medicine - An NIBIB-funded tissue engineer developed a biological gel that can be injected into a cartilage defect following microfracture surgery to create an environment that facilitates regeneration. To keep the gel in place within the knee, researchers also developed a new biological adhesive that is able to bond to both the gel and the damaged cartilage in the knee, keeping the newly regrown cartilage in place.

Technology Transfer

The National Institutes of Health research programs generate many products that benefit the public every day. Information on licensing technologies is available through the NIH Office of Technology Transfer . For more information on the NIBIB, visit here .


Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the July, 2020 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

Read more articles from this issue here.

Read more articles from the archives here.