UT Dallas awarded $1 million to improve prosthetics for soldiers

December 17, 2013

Dr. Walter Voit, assistant professor of materials science and engineering and mechanical engineering at The University of Texas at Dallas, has been awarded $1 million to create medical devices that will lead to greater control of prosthetics in wounded soldiers.

Voit was one of 25 junior faculty members in the country selected to receive a DARPA Young Faculty Award. The long-term goal of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program is to develop the next generation of scientists and engineers who will focus their careers and research on Department of Defense and national security issues. More than 200 junior faculty applied to receive part of the more than $12 million awarded.

"Dr. Voit is a pioneer in our department by developing materials for critical medical applications," said Dr. Yves Chabal, holder of the Texas Instruments Distinguished University Chair in Nanoelectronics and head of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering in the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science. "This award underscores the importance of the technology and his leading role in the field."

Current prosthetics and other implantable medical devices often fail within a year because tissue separates from the device. This can cause bleeding and scar tissue, which ultimately can prevent the device from stimulating the targeted nerve.

The devices are also too large to operate with tissues as small as specific nerves.

Voit has created shape memory polymers - materials that can respond to the body's environment and become less rigid when implanted in the body. These polymers are implanted when they're rigid and then flex toward the stiffness of the tissue. Voit's proposal called for using these polymers in the microfabrication process known as photolithography to create medical devices that will survive implantation in the body for more than one year.

"A chronically-stable interface with the body's nervous system is necessary to couple partial sensory sensation in prosthetics with motor control," Voit said. "This problem will not be solved entirely by a team of materials scientists. However, we believe that an eventual successful device for chronic microstimulation will be based on combining a range of thin-film and polymeric materials that are compatible with reliable microfabrication techniques.

"In our experience, this platform for device fabrication allows for the flexibility required to meet the demands of the electrophysiologist and surgeon, while surviving the aggressive mechanical and chemical environment of the nervous system," Voit said.

As part of the three-year grant, Voit will receive mentoring and build relationships with industry and Department of Defense contacts to develop his research in the context of DOD needs.

Other applications of the work from Voit's DARPA Young Faculty Award include treatment of neurodegenerative diseases such as tinnitus, epilepsy, stroke and Parkinson's.

Voit was part of the inaugural class of Eugene McDermott Scholars and earned a bachelor's degree in computer science and a master's degree in intelligent systems from UT Dallas. He returned to teach at UT Dallas after earning his doctorate in materials science and engineering from Georgia Tech. At UT Dallas, Voit is also a researcher in the Texas Biomedical Device Center.

"This award is as a much a tribute to the mentoring, facilities and environment at an institution that gives young faculty the opportunity to attempt to tackle interesting problems," Voit said. "The investments UT Dallas has made in the Materials Science and Engineering Department, the Mechanical Engineering Department, the Bioengineering Department and the cleanroom facility are foundational pillars that allowed me to be confident in proposing the neural research that DARPA has chosen to fund."
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University of Texas at Dallas

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