UNT’s biomedical engineering researchers create medical devices and technology to shape people’s lives.
By Jessica DeLeón
Photography by Gary Payne
Melanie Ecker is determined to improve people’s health. In her laboratory in the biomedical engineering department at UNT’s Discovery Park, the assistant professor is trying to find a way — with the help of polymers.
She sees polymers as similar to paper clips, flexible and easy to change. And that flexibility can turn into devices that go deep into the organs to “listen” to what is ailing
At the TEDxUNT event in October, Ecker spoke about “smart plastics,” explaining how polymers used as plastics can save people’s lives.
“We need to combine the right paper clips in the right way. We need to combine polymers in smart ways. By doing so, we can help many patients and even save lives,” she says. “The possibilities are endless.”
That potential impact drives Ecker, who specialized in chemistry before she was drawn to the field of biomedical engineering. She joins others in the department whose mission is the ability to make state-of-the-art devices to transform human health.
Since its inception nearly 10 years ago, the department has become one of the fastest-growing programs at the university and is ranked ninth in the nation by
BestValueSchools.org — further establishing UNT’s reputation as a hub for leading innovative research.
Researchers work in the 26,250-square-foot Biomedical Engineering Building, a premier learning space that opened in 2019 at Discovery Park and boasts cutting-edge equipment and plenty of available lab space. Top health technology companies such as Abbott Laboratories, Alcon and Zimmer Biomet seek out graduates of the program.
Students are drawn to the challenge of collaborating with others from across disciplines — including biology, business, chemistry, computer science, mathematics and performing arts health services.
“America’s next big field for innovation is medicine,” says Edward Sean Gates (’18, ’21 M.S.), the department’s lab manager. “Medical devices and products need levels of engineering to ensure that human interaction with technology is safe, secure and reliable. With a multidisciplinary approach, we’re working to build a better, smarter tomorrow — together.”
Ecker is investigating the use of smart polymers in the enteric nervous system, specifically the intestines or bowels, to enhance treatment of gastrointestinal disorders.
“We’ve all felt butterflies in our stomach when we are in love, have pain or even digestive problems in stressful situations,” Ecker says. “We want to better understand how the brain and gut are communicating with each other.”
She envisions a computer chip-like device similar to a pacemaker that is capable of stimulating the enteric nerves to reduce the burden of these disorders. Many devices are made of hard materials, such as silicon wafers, which can’t stick to the guts.
But Ecker’s polymers can change shape based on a stimulus when inserted into a body part. She and the students in her lab hope to develop materials that will stretch and conform to the guts and have electronics embedded to “listen” to the nerves in the intestines, then record and decode the electrical signals they send to the devices.
“We want to have a material that is as stiff as uncooked spaghetti during the implantation but softens inside the body like the cooked version,” she says.
Assistant professor Brian Meckes and his research team are exploring better ways of delivering nanoparticle therapeutics to targeted cells by taking advantage of changes in the cell membrane that occur in diseased cells. The hope is to find better treatments for cancer, osteoarthritis or fibrogenesis. His research earned him a 2021 Ralph E. Powe Junior Faculty Enhancement Award from Oak Ridge Associated Universities.
“The research shows that cancer cells that are very metastatic — the most aggressive cells — tend to be the ones that are stiffer,” Meckes says. “In targeting the nanoparticle, we can look and see if there is a difference between the membrane structure in a cell that is soft and a cell that is stiff. And now we have a potential therapeutic target.”
Assistant professor Clement T. Y. Chan received a grant from the National Institutes of Health for his project, in which he and his team are trying to engineer bacteria — safe for humans to ingest — to specifically target, detect and recognize a range of pathogens or toxins. The bacteria, designed to sit in patients’ guts, will generate a color pigment such as red, green or yellow. The pigment then shows up in a fecal sample, allowing scientists to determine what is ailing the patient. It’s more efficient and cost effective than current methods of diagnosis and allows for treatment to begin more immediately.
“What approaches can we use to tackle a problem?” Chan says. “It’s very exciting and rewarding to take a project to the next level and improve people’s health.”
When Trevor Exley (’20, ’21 M.S.) created a 3D-printed hand controlled through his own muscles at a summer program through the nonprofit The Shoulders of Giants, he knew he’d found his calling.
UNT’s biomedical engineering program seemed made for him. For a project in his master’s program, Exley used machine learning to examine the data of individuals with Parkinson’s Disease as they stood on force plate sensors. The sensors determined how the individuals allocated pressure and measured such things as tremors.
Such alternative tools can be especially valuable and affordable for telemedicine and remote clinics — and help health care workers in organizations such as Doctors Without Borders who don’t work in traditional hospital settings.
Exley is now one of the first students in UNT’s biomedical engineering doctoral program. Under the mentorship of associate professor Amir Jafari in the Advanced Robotic Manipulators Lab and supported by the UNT G-RISE program, he is working on a novel design for thermoactive soft actuators. The goal is for the actuator to have a compression force and speed similar to human muscles and eventually be implemented in rehabilitation strategies.
“I’ll be able to innovate for medical devices to be more accessible and affordable to those in need,” Exley says.
Students display enthusiasm and creativity as they collaborate with each other at the makerspace at Discovery Park. They “work” on a virtual surgery table where they “remove” organs and “transplant” prosthetics. A bio 3D printer allows them to print artificial skin. The space is filled with their projects, including a wheelchair that helps users climb stairs, a therapeutic chair to decrease pain and an inflatable airbag for senior citizens to wear to help ease a fall.
As part of their capstone project, seniors are required to work together to create a device. Alexandra Teoh (’21) was part of a team that created a biomaterial that mimics the drug absorption properties of the laryngeal mucous membrane for the startup medical device company DUALAMS. The team used a UV curing system to make it, along with a compression testing machine, which tested the efficacy of their biomaterial compared to the typical testing methods — eliminating the need for animal testing.
Teoh, who began studying at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston this summer, is working toward a career in both pediatrics and research.
“Biomedical engineering sold me on pursuing research,” she says. “I’m dedicated to creating solutions to help others.