Helping Biomedical Research Help Others
By Rob Knies
August 1, 2007 1:00 PM PT

One of most cherished capabilities of humans is the ability to communicate. People like to hear from others, to be heard themselves, to express and share opinions, to participate in life’s great debate.

For some, however, communication can be challenging. Chronic diseases or developmental disorders can make communications difficult or seemingly impossible. Surmounting such afflictions is a goal for many in the medical community.

Imagine, though, if there were a way to enable autistic children to communicate better with their parents or teachers. Envision a physician being able to obtain vital signs and other pertinent patient information over a phone from a child injured at a playground.

Mere pipedreams? Not if Kristin Tolle has anything to say about it. Tolle, a program manager on the External Research & Programs (ER&P) team within Microsoft Research Redmond, heads the new Biomedical Computing Initiative, which is providing funding to a host of research projects to tackle precisely these sorts of issues.

“The goal,” Tolle says, “is to improve health care as a whole and have a global impact.”

Among the efforts to do so are a couple of projects that received support from Microsoft Research as a result of a biomedical-computing request for proposals early this year:

  • Using Smartphones to Enable Interaction and Communication with Autistic Children: Work being performed by Gondy Leroy, assistant professor of Information Systems and Technology at Claremont Graduate University, and Gianluca De Leo, assistant professor of the Medical Laboratory and Radiation Department and of the Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center at Old Dominion University. The goal of the system being devised by Leroy and De Leo is to enable non-verbal autistic children to be able to speak by using a mobile device, such as a Smartphone.
  • OsteoConduct: Musculo-Skeletal Conduction for Secure Data Communication: A project being pursued at Rice University by Michael Liebschner, assistant professor of bioengineering, and Lin Zhong, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, that uses bone conduction as a new interface between computers and human users. The goal of this project is to develop a platform technology for interbody communication to exchange data between sensors and a Smartphone and to use this form of communication for diagnostic purposes.

Both have exciting potential for enabling enhanced communication—enhanced life—for many. That, Tolle says, helps Microsoft from both a research perspective and a business perspective.

A nascent Health Solutions Group within Microsoft, an incubation effort to encourage the development of health-care products, provides a potential destination for some of the biomedical advances being achieved within Microsoft Research. And make no doubt about it, such work is occurring.

“Priming that pipeline,” Tolle says, “is very important to us.”

Just as important, though, is the opportunity to make a contribution to the medical community—and, by extension, to the world at large.

“Microsoft as a corporation has always had a really strong desire to do things that are socially relevant,” Tolle says. “What better way to be good corporate citizens than to put money into supporting medical research?

“There is a disparity in different countries’ abilities to do medical research and provide better health care to their populations,” she adds. “We are planning a global medical-research initiative that financially supports best-of-breed research in computational medicine with the hope that we can have a positive impact on the equalization of world health care.”

Tolle recently did some sleuthing on the types of ER&P projects over the years that have supported health-related research. The results were eye-opening.

“I recently did a study,” she confirms, “and polled all of the types of funding that we’ve done over the years across our various research initiatives and discovered that—without even having a specific initiative in this area—we have already spent millions of dollars funding medical research in association through other enabling technologies, such as sensors and robotics.

“It makes sense for us to have a really clear strategy about making those investments in biomedical computing. As such, we developed a multiyear strategy to fund the area. Because we are being more targeted, we feel we’ll be able to reach deeper and be more beneficial to the research community as a whole.”

LETTING KIDS BE KIDS

A pair of recent studies in 14 U.S. communities by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that roughly 1 in 150 children has an autism spectrum disorder. That number, significantly higher than previously thought, suggests an untold amount of heartache and frustration for affected families—but it also represents a huge opportunity for those attempting to deliver assistance.

Leroy and De Leo are among those searching for answers, and their research, assisted by Microsoft Research, shows promise of being able to provide significant help.

“Our goal is to develop communication software that can be used by severely autistic children who do not communicate verbally,” says Leroy, co-author of a paper entitled Using a Digital Library of Images for Communication: Comparison of a Card-Based System to PDA Software. “Many of these children learn to communicate by combining images into a message. The messages are usually printed, laminated, and kept together in a folder. Our software will make it possible for the children to communicate in the same manner using a Smartphone or a PDA.”

Previous work offered an indication that this approach could succeed.

“There was a prototype,” Tolle notes, “that preceded this particular study that showed that children who used it loved it.”

They did so for a couple of key reasons.

“What they have today,” Tolle noted, “is a big, large notebook. Think of a binder, one of those really thick ones, about 4½ inches high. That’s what they have to carry around, open up, flip through the pages, pull pictures from, arrange them on another piece of paper, and point to it.”

A device such as a Smartphone could streamline matters.

“Using Smartphones is a lot less stigmatizing,” Leroy says, “and the software will also provide feedback on usage, which will help therapists and teachers evaluate the impact of their therapy very precisely and allow them to make improvements where possible.”

Not only does a handheld device make it easier for autistic children to communicate with the world around them, but it also makes it easy to increase the size and the flexibility of their available vocabulary.

“The problem with the notebook photos was that they didn’t form an English sentence,” Tolle says. “Somebody had to then contextually infer what it was that the child was trying to communicate.

“The Smartphone project makes that conversion easier. Text can be added and enlarged so it’s easy to read by the intended recipient. Pictures and associated text can be uploaded to a Web site, and once on the Web site, they then can be downloaded to the phone.

“It enables people who wouldn’t normally be able to integrate into society to do so,” she adds. “The notebook itself is like a big, red flag that there’s something wrong with a person. But you see kids with cellphones all the time. They can act like normal kids and speak for themselves. Parents and siblings particularly appreciate this.”

Moving autistic youngsters closer to the mainstream is central to the goals of the project.

“We hope that many parents and teachers will be able to use the software to communicate with severely autistic children,” Leroy says. “The prevalence of autism is rising, and an affordable, first-learner approach such as this may impact millions.”

DOWN TO THE BONE

What if your body could serve as an antenna for your cellphone or digital device? Sounds wacky, right? Well, maybe not if you talk with Liebschner. In fact, not only is it a viable concept, but it might well develop into a key component of mobile communication.

“With increasing demands for interconnected and linked systems, security and reliability of mobile computing becomes an issue,” says Liebschner, assistant professor of Bioengineering and head of Rice’s Computational Biomechanics Laboratory, who is running the OsteoConduct project along with Zhong, a former Microsoft Research intern who is now an assistant professor in Rice’s Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering and leads its Efficient Computing Group.

“To overcome these limitations,” Liebschner says, “the goal of our project is to prove the feasibility of using acoustic sound patterns transmitted through the human skeleton as a means for reliable data communication. Our vision is to use the human body as a link between body sensors or transducers and cellphones. The increasing capabilities of cellphones are then used for data exchange over phone lines, the Ethernet, or Bluetooth, based on the application.”

For Tolle, the project exudes a cool factor that makes it captivating and compelling.

“What if I could just walk up to my computer and have it be able to sense who I am?” she asks. “That’s an incredible security and privacy solution. No two people have the exact same signature. That’s what makes it cool science.”

What really makes for cool science, though, is not just how something is done, but what is actually achieved. Liebschner can offer a list of potential uses of the technology on which he and Zhong are working:

  • Long-term health monitoring outside a hospital setting.
  • Injury prevention of physically active individuals.
  • Remote diagnostics—similar to telemedicine, but through cellphones.
  • User authentication for high-security areas.
  • Activation of a mobile device through body motion.

“More long-term goals,” he adds, “include, for example, two-way communication between a wristwatch and an implanted drug-delivery system, and communication between individuals through handshakes.”

Clearly, the implications are many, the potential staggering.

“Today’s world requires more efficiency and multitasking,” Liebschner says. “We have less and less time for a specific task, while other obligations are already piling up. Breakthrough technology such as OsteoConduct can help us be more efficient and live a longer and healthier life.

“For example, constant health monitoring allows early detection of disease and pathologies before they take on catastrophic measures, following the motto, ‘Prevention is always better than treatment.’ ”

To make a real impact, though, such technology must mature to meet the demands of the market.

“Even if promising,” Liebschner says, “if constant health monitoring would be complex, difficult to operate, uncomfortable, and expensive, it would never make it to the market. Our goal is to develop devices and technology that will improve the quality of life. We believe that OsteoConduct can contribute to that.”

SHARING SUCCESSES

Funding from Microsoft Research’s ER&P group works both ways. On one hand, promising projects from the academic research community receive support. On the other, academic research is shared for the community’s greater good.

“Microsoft provides the funding for the open-source software development,” says Leroy of her project. “This makes it possible to develop the communication software in interaction with teachers and parents, do prototype testing with Smartphones, and then provide it online for free in the community.”

Liebschner sees similar benefits.

“In research, as well as in the corporate world, the proof of concept of early-stage technology is key in moving to the next step,” he says. “Seed-funding opportunities as through this Microsoft Research award allows us to perform proof-of-concept research. While the risk is high for failure at this early stage, the return could be enormous.”

For Tolle, the process is extremely gratifying to witness.

“The beautiful thing about the way we fund projects in ER&P,” she says, “is that we ask that people to put these things back into the research community to further science as a whole. The purpose is to stop people from reinventing the wheel.”