Courtesy of UCR Today
Courtesy of UCR Today

A team comprised of researchers from UC San Diego, UC Riverside and three research institutions from Puebla, Mexico gathered at UC Riverside for a two-day symposium to discuss their biomedical project titled, “Window to the Brain.” The researchers will be working together to create a transparent skull implant that will allow doctors to treat their patients in a minimally invasive manner. The program is formally titled, “Synthesis of Optical Materials for Bioapplications: Research, Education, Recruitment and Outreach” (SOMBRERO).

The researchers’ plans are to develop an implant that will eliminate the need for doctors to perform a craniotomy, an invasive procedure in which a surgeon opens the skull to access the brain. For patients with life-threatening neurological disorders, such as brain cancers, strokes, neurodegenerative diseases and traumatic brain injuries, having this implant will make it easier for them to receive laser-based treatments to the brain without the potential damages that result from repeated craniotomies.

For the implant to work as intended, the team is creating microneedles that will deliver drugs to  the skin tissue covering the implant, making the skin temporarily transparent. Once transparent, light will be able to shine through the skin and through the implant to illuminate the brain.

Other obstacles the team addressed at the symposium included how to ensure the biocompatibility of the implant and how to protect the implant and the body from bacterial infections.

Guillermo Aguilar, who is the professor and chair of mechanical engineering at BCOE, will be leading the team, along with Santiago Camacho-Lopez from the Centro de Investigacion Cientifica y de Educacion Superior de Ensenada (CICESE) based in Ensanada, Mexico. Also included in the project are 36 undergraduate and graduate students from the UCR School of Medicine, UCSD and CICESE, Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM) and Instituto Nacional de Astrofisica, Optica y Electronica (INAOE) in Puebla.

Former UCR professor Javier Garay, who now works at UCSD, previously worked with Camacho-Lopez and Aguilar to create the “transparent version of the material yttria-stabilized zirconia (YSZ)—a tough, impact resistant ceramic product that is already used in hip implants and dental crowns” (via UCR Today). This project then led to the creation of the “Window to the Brain” project.

Nearly $5 million dollars in funding for the long-term project comes from various sources, with $3.6 million coming from the National Science Foundation’s Partnerships in International Research and Education (PIRE) program, $1 million from Mexico’s scientific research fund, Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnologia (CONACYT) and other research institutions from Mexico.

SOMBRERO celebrated its one-year anniversary on the date of the meeting and hopes that their research will contribute to improved healthcare for those afflicted by neurological disorders.