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PracticePoint: On the Cutting Edge

Researchers, students, and businesses are working on tomorrow’s medical device breakthroughs today

Bob Cathcart is in the depths of technology development. The CEO of AiM Medical Robotics is working on a device that could one day revolutionize brain surgery.

The technology—a small, robotic surgical device that can operate on the brain while inside a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner—was, in fact, developed at WPI. AiM Medical Robotics licensed it from the university and is now working to take it from prototype to market. To do that, Cathcart knows he’ll need a lot of help, including access to medical equipment for testing, engineering capabilities, insights from industry experts, and an office where he can carry out the work. That led him to WPI’s new facility, PracticePoint.

“PracticePoint combines the expertise of leading academic researchers with cutting-edge facilities, where groundbreaking medical device technologies can flourish,” says Cathcart. “We have the ability to do real hands-on work in this top-notch facility and then put it into practice in that environment.”

Having kicked off in 2017 with a $5 million matching grant from the Massachusetts Baker-Polito Administration and the Innovation Institute at the MassTech Collaborative (MTC), PracticePoint officially opened its doors in January 2020. With the help of its founding partners, including MTC, GE Healthcare, UMass Medical School, MITRE, and WPI, PracticePoint aims to advance healthcare through collaboration and innovation in working with cyberphysical systems (i.e., smart medical devices of all kinds).

PracticePoint is many things: an incubator for businesses, a collaborative space for members to meet and exchange ideas, a state-of-the-art research facility for educators and students, and the nexus for innovation that could change the world of healthcare as we know it.

It’s also a facility that reflects the goals of WPI, says Gregory Fischer, director of PracticePoint and professor of robotics engineering at WPI. “We like to have real problems to solve. We’re not just sitting in a cubicle coming up with problems and figuring out how to shoehorn them into actual real-world problems,” he says. “We’re building things.”

Fischer’s goal for PracticePoint is to identify those healthcare challenges and work with its corporate partners to solve them. In doing so, the center is speeding up the innovations of tomorrow by helping businesses, academics, and students conduct research together and build solutions today. For entrepreneurs like Cathcart, that’s a game changer. 

The Vision

There’s a shared challenge for those who aspire to build technology and solve problems in the healthcare field: they often have limited access to hospital settings and equipment, such as million-dollar imaging machines.

Fischer, whose research is in medical robotics developments, was a co-inventor of the surgical robot technology that Cathcart has licensed. He remembers continually working around that challenge, both in grad school and in recent years. “You find yourself going to a local hospital at really odd times for a couple hours,” he says. “You pack up all your stuff at the lab, you drive it or—in some cases—ship it down to the hospital. You do your experiments for a couple hours, then pack everything up and drive it or ship it back to the lab.”

Those experiences, in fact, planted the seed for PracticePoint. Fischer began to imagine the possibility of establishing, at WPI, a hospital-like environment used for research purposes. 

“I’ve seen people take their suite and drop it in a nursing school so they can practice nursing activities,” says Fischer. “But I’ve never seen anybody take all these clinical suites—operating room, MRI suite, patient care suite, motion capture labs, rehab areas—and drop them all together in the center of an engineering school that can accelerate healthcare device development.”

That’s exactly what PracticePoint offers—along with manufacturing capabilities that include 3D printing, CNC manufacturing, electronics assembly, and test capabilities—all of which are open to students and faculty as well as member organizations, which currently include GE, Boston Scientific, MITRE, Karl Storz, Delsys, eMotionRX, Stability Health, UMass Medical School, and AiM Medical Robotics.

“PracticePoint is a facility that reflects the goals of WPI, says Gregory Fischer, director of PracticePoint and professor of robotics engineering at WPI. “We like to have real problems to solve. We’re not just sitting in a cubicle coming up with problems and figuring out how to shoehorn them into actual real-world problems,” he says. “We’re building things.””

Building Solutions

By using a strong magnetic field and a computer, an MRI produces detailed images of the inside of a body. If Cathcart and AiM Medical Robotics have their way, one day the robotic surgical device they’re marketing will be able to perform surgery inside the narrow MRI tube as the surgeon views the images and controls the device from outside.

“The robot will be able to deliver therapy to areas deep in the brain,” says Cathcart, “with a level of precision and accuracy that even the finest surgeons cannot match today.”

To punctuate how powerful that could be, he compares it to the evolution of the GPS. 

“Think of it as getting in your car with a GPS system dating back 15 years. You enter a coordinate of your location and the GPS will begin to tell you how to get there,” says Cathcart. “But if you run into heavy traffic or if a road is closed or if weather conditions change, those first-generation GPS systems really can’t help you anymore. So you revert to flying blind, so to speak.”

With the robot-assisted surgery in the MRI, there’s no more flying blind. “What the robot does inside an MRI scanner is very much like using Waze while driving a car today. You can take an image with MR that can tell you your target has shifted or the pathway you’re on in the brain is wrong and you need to adjust,” he says. “The robot can then adjust all the tools and different probes and pathways you’re using.”

The timing of PracticePoint couldn’t have been more fortuitous for Cathcart, who is working with the Boston office of Cambridge Consultants to design and build the commercial robot. AiM Medical Robotics will have an office at PracticePoint, which will be their main site for testing the work as it’s developed. He will have direct access to Fischer and his team, who can help validate the designs and consult on the development. In time, Cathcart says, AiM Medical Robotics will likely collaborate with WPI teams to design sophisticated software, which could include artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and virtual reality applications.

Aside from the access to expertise, office space, and equipment, Cathcart says he’s thrilled for the networking opportunities at PracticePoint. “For a company like ours that’s small and new and unknown to people,” he says, “it’s going to give us great exposure to potential industry partners.”

And then there’s the validation that comes with this kind of partnership.

“As we’re starting this company,” says Cathcart, “we’re trying to develop a name for ourselves and a reputation. A lot of people within the industry don’t know who we are, but our ability to refer to WPI and the tech it’s developed, and refer to Professor Fischer for the leadership role he has at WPI and that he came out of a very highly regarded robotics lab at Johns Hopkins—all that speaks very well for us.”

Immersive Learning

When Christopher Nycz ’16 MS, ’18 PhD, was studying robotics engineering at WPI, he encountered the same kinds of problems Fischer spoke of. When he needed to use devices such as MRI machines that were not in the lab, it required a good amount of planning and commuting. Today, in his job as a research scientist at PracticePoint, he knows just how fortunate the students he works with are. With easy access to equipment, they’re able to quickly make changes, fix problems, and manufacture components.

“Getting hands-on with an MRI machine gives you insights that sitting in a class about medical physics can’t give you,” he says. “I think having access to it is going to be very beneficial for students.”

The MRI machine, part of the Hospital Care Suite, is just the beginning. There’s also a hybrid operating room suite and a clinical care suite. In the Manufacturing and Prototyping Space there’s a machine shop, equipment for electronics fabrication, and 3D printing capabilities. And in the Home Rehab and Assistive Care Environment, there’s a residential care suite and a motion capture suite. The latter, says Fischer, has been especially popular with students since PracticePoint opened. “There’s always students in there, and they get really excited because they get to use all this really high-tech, state-of-the-art equipment,” he says.

For Class of 2020 graduates Josephine Bowen (mechanical engineering), Ben Thornton (biomedical engineering), Blake Dobay (computer science), and Marc Reardon (computer science), the technology at PracticePoint was invaluable to their MQP. All four students are rowers; Bowen was captain of the women’s team and Thornton was captain of the men’s team. For their project, they created a series of sensors that rowers can wear to help coach themselves and improve their technique. 

“In rowing, the sequence of body movement is important,” explains Bowen. “First your legs move, then your body, then your arms. Currently, rowers have the technology to see the force they apply over time, but they are unable to see if they are applying the force with the right part of the body ”

Thornton used the motion-capture equipment at PracticePoint to record Bowen’s movements on a stationary rowing machine and analyzed changes in different angles as she rowed—knee, elbow, and back angles. Placing sensors on the machine, the team is also recording acceleration in different areas—the handle of the machine, the seat, and the back. Those results determined the degree to which acceleration changes with different angles in different parts of the body. Dobay and Reardon worked on the data visualization aspect of the project, creating graphs and force curves that illustrate their findings. Through this work, they engineered a tool that rowers can use to understand the movement of their own arms, back, and legs, and adjust accordingly to improve performance.

“Seeing this on a graph in live time,” says Bowden, “will enable rowers to use the graph to make appropriate changes to their rowing.”

While PracticePoint is a natural fit for engineering students, Fischer emphasizes that it’s a place where everyone in the WPI community can learn and grow, in all areas of study, from undergraduates to PhD students to faculty. Data science and data visualization students can uncover new ways of presenting meaningful patient data; robotics students can design, build, and test new technology; neuroscience students can assess mental efforts and cognitive load; business school students can study user experience by studying eye tracking and optimizing user interfaces; students at the Home Health Care Delivery Institute can develop relevant apps, and cybersecurity students can test interoperability and cyber safety.

“I don’t want people to think this is a robotics center,” says Fischer. “We really want to engage everybody in developing these systems.”

Lehr und Kunst

Though it’s in its early days, it’s clear that the possibilities of PracticePoint are unlimited. It’s a place where students can learn new skills and prepare for jobs. It’s an office where businesses can access cutting-edge equipment, conduct research, develop devices, and meet their future employees. It’s a hub where innovation happens every single day.

AiM Medical Robotics is just one example of a business that’s working to change healthcare, with the help of PracticePoint. “When we combine the accuracy, precision, and efficiency

of the surgical robot with the real-time imaging capabilities of the MRI scanner, we hope to significantly improve the lives of patients suffering from brain cancer or functional brain disorders like Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy,” says Cathcart. “The ability to move quicker, faster, more efficiently is probably the biggest benefit to the system.”

When Fischer thinks about the potential impact of PracticePoint, he’s excited. The facility allows businesses to enhance their capabilities and device development so that they can get their technology out to help people, and students can play an important part in that journey. That, he says, reflects the university’s guiding philosophy.

“WPI’s motto is Lehr und Kunst, theory and practice,” he says. “And that’s really what PracticePoint is all about.” [J]

To learn more about PracticePoint, click here!

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