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Summer Research Spotlight: Measuring Gastrointestinal Slow Waves

From the radio transmissions of the early 20th century to today’s explosion of digital media, people rely on electric signals as a mode of communication. But even before a method of harnessing electricity was discovered, the human body used electronic messaging to control its function. Every 20 seconds, cells from a pacemaker region of the stomach transmit an electric wave. These signals — called gastrointestinal slow waves — communicate the conditions of the stomach and control the organ’s independent function. Because slow waves act like the stomach’s radio system, measuring them is a highly effective way for doctors to diagnose potentially serious gastrointestinal abnormalities. However, current systems that measure slow waves are tremendously expensive and often require surgery.

There could be a dramatically better way to make these types of diagnoses. Jamie Hayes ’17, Alfred Rwagaju ’18, and Rajwol Joshi ’18 are using electrical engineering to create a medical solution. Working with Professor Jonathan Erickson in the physics and engineering department, they spent their summer designing and testing a device capable of wirelessly monitoring a patient’s slow wave activity — no surgery required. Similar systems cost upwards of $200,000; but their budget is only $2,000 – $3,000, which could make medical research and essential care drastically more affordable.

“It’s really incredible to be working on a project that actually has huge potential to affect people’s lives and the future of gastro-intestinal medicine,” said Hayes.

Although the application of their project is medical research and care, their work on a day-to-day basis was configuring wires and programming computer code. To test a wired electrode system, they pulsed electric signals through a prepared solution that simulated the content of the human body. In a real-life scenario, these electrodes would be placed on a person’s stomach to transmit signals from the slow waves into a microcontroller, which resembles a computer chip. This microcontroller would then feed the code into a computer, where the information could be effectively amplified and monitored. Hayes, Rwagaju and Joshi have been busy writing the computer code to enable this electrical communication.

“As our project is constantly building on itself, our work is never the same from day to day,” said Hayes, who jumped at the opportunity to do this research with Professor Erickson. “I took a full year of electrical engineering courses with Professor Erickson, and found the work very challenging but rewarding. At the very end of fall term I was starting to search for summer internships, and he asked me if I’d be interested in doing research. I was thrilled.”

“For me, the most rewarding thing about doing research is how you’re working closely with a faculty member,” Rwagaju said. “You learn a lot, you gain a lot of experience, it builds your confidence. It also helps people planning on going to graduate school because you gain a lot of skills in the lab, and you’re building a lot of knowledge with that faculty member.”

Hayes agreed, adding that W&L faculty can also connect students to other experts in the field. “It’s a great feeling when a test analysis report I’ve written gets sent off to a global expert on the subject, and he weighs in with feedback on the results.”

This GI slow wave project grew out of an international collaboration and has been in the works for two years. Professor Erickson started working on it with a group at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute in New Zealand.

“I looked at the price tag of these current systems and thought, ‘That’s ridiculous.’ I have some expertise in biomedical engineering electronics, so I thought we could just make our own system. It will take some work to develop all the electronics, but we think we could do it for about $2,000 instead of $200,000. So that’s where the project came from,” Erickson said.

The applications of this project are twofold. First, it could lower the barriers for physiology research. “There’s not much understanding of the GI system, as compared with the brain or the heart. That’s partly because the gut is so hard to access and also because we’re discovering recently that it’s more and more complicated,” Erickson explained. The project also has potential for use in hospitals. “For medical care, everyone’s dream is that if we’re able to make this system cheap and accelerate basic research, it will get to clinical translation much faster.”

In the United States, there are an estimated 60 to 70 million people with GI disorders and $30 billion spent on diagnoses, which are often vague and come with untargeted therapies. Erickson said he hopes that in a decade, the technology will be advanced enough to diagnose GI disorders effectively, affordably, and non-invasively.

As far as having undergraduate summer research students, he said the learning experience is fast-paced and enjoyable: “Many times, I get to learn something and then immediately teach it to them. There’s also a nice sort of ‘circle of life,’ if you will. I teach them some, and they teach me some. The three of them are all just having fun learning together.”

Hayes, a physics engineering major from Chattanooga, Tennessee, is also a varsity swimmer and a member of the University Singers. A rising junior, he is considering a future career in electrical engineering. His summer research was funded by the E. A. Morris Research Scholars Endowment. Joshi, a sophomore from Nepal, and Rwagaju, a sophomore from Rwanda, are both planning on pursuing a double major in physics engineering and computer science. Joshi’s research was funded by the Levy Endowment for Neuroscience, and Rwagaju’s by the E. A. Morris Research Scholars Endowment.

– by Laura Lemon ’16 and Jinae Kennedy ’16