Cutting the Cord

It started with what a couple of anesthesiologists came to call Malignant Spaghetti: the mess of wires, monitors and cords necessary for an operating room to function—but which also make the OR awkward, even dangerous.

So they wondered: Could we replace this jumble and go wireless?

That thinking led to a workshop—“Malignant Spaghetti”—at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University in November of 2008, which delved into the problems and promise of the wireless hospital.

And this, in turn, was part of the inspiration for, and mission of, NYU WIRELESS (nyuwireless.com), the world’s first academic research center that develops wireless communication engineering, computer science and medical applications. NYU WIRELESS brings together faculty and students to research many areas of medicine, along with millimeter wave wireless communications and circuits, distributed networking and computing. Launched in the latter part of 2012, the center has already had 25 faculty and 100 graduate and undergraduate students from NYU-Poly’s Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) and Computer Science and Engineering (CSE) departments, NYU’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Science and the NYU Langone School of Medicine come onboard. Among the industry affiliates who have signed on are InterDigital, National Instruments, and Samsung. The center recently moved into 13,500 square feet of “the largest and most well-equipped academic wireless research center in the world,” at 2 MetroTech Center on the 9th floor, says NYU WIRELESS founder Theodore (Ted) S. Rappaport. A faculty member of NYU-Poly, Courant and the NYU School of Medicine, Rappaport previously founded academic wireless centers at Virginia Tech and the University of Texas at Austin, as well as two cellular technology companies that were sold to large public firms, and was recently named a 2013 Distinguished Engineering Alumnus of Purdue University.

 

“NYU WIRELESS is a completely new kind of research center at Poly,” he says, “because it brings together so many different talents across the entire campus. We are focusing on developing very deep and sustained relations with our industrial affiliate companies in the high-tech industry, in a stronger and more committed way than Poly has ever done before.”

NYU WIRELESS will not be focusing solely on medical applications. Also in the works, for instance, is a 5G cellular network, which will be a thousand times faster than what’s available to handheld smartphones these days. But Rappaport is especially excited that “the medical community is so positive and eager to work with Poly engineers. One thing technology can do is break down the barriers and bring about new solutions across the medical industry.” He had a hand in developing the first wireless pacemaker in the mid-1990s: “Ever since, I’ve been fascinated with the use of wireless to help solve medical problems.”

Many Challenges

All that faculty and technical firepower will be needed to solve a host of problems that come with unwiring a hospital. One issue is the lack of standardization among manufacturers of major medical equipment. “That’s different from cellphones, which are sold in millions of units versus a few very high-priced medical machines,” Rappaport points out. “One of our long-term goals is to standardize major equipment through wireless, and bring solutions from the communications and electronics industries into the operating room. The faculty at NYU WIRELESS are highly motivated by that big-vision mission.”

“Specialized hardware needs to be reliable and it is susceptible to interference that in a medical setting might be unacceptable,” adds Shivendra Panwar, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineer and Director of the Center for Advanced Technology in Telecommunications (CATT), a center that is a part of NYU WIRELESS.

There can be security concerns too, according to Justin Cappos, Assistant Professor of Computer Science and Engineering and NYU WIRELESS faculty member, who researches systems security. “One basic of wireless is it’s a broadcast medium. Anyone can talk and anyone can listen. You have to appropriately use encryption so information is correctly hidden. That’s complicated when it comes to medical records that you want a lot of people to access, while keeping others out,” he says. “Five years ago I would have said we’d have electronic medical records by now or they’d be significantly gaining in popularity. But regulatory issues have an impact, and we can’t say how the business or legal side will tie in with technology.”

Projects and Potential

NYU-Poly engineers don’t expect to solve all of this overnight, but they are making inroads in many areas. With radiologists at the NYU School of Medicine, they are bringing to radiology modern signal processing and hardware, such as multicore microprocessors that get better images with better resolution than ever before. A collaboration between students in the radiology department and WIRELESS faculty is looking at measuring radiation emissions. “It’s a completely new way to use MRIs to test cellphone emissions,” says Rappaport. And they are working with anesthesiologists, cardiologists and radiologists who need real-time wireless technology that can provide information to surgeons so they can make better decisions on the fly. They are also looking at using microwave radiation to help heart surgeons do cleaner, more controlled submillimeter tissue burn. “It promises to be better than today’s electronic scalpel,” Rappaport says. Yet another project, based on research by Jonathan Viventi, a faculty member of NYU WIRELESS, is developing new human-ready circuitry that can be placed in the body, to send data without being tethered to cords. Rappaport sees potential for use in people with epilepsy, for one example.

A simple possibility, says Panwar, is that patients who need a sequence of tests could be given a wristband that tracks their samples, EEG and so on, so the facility knows that the patient has gotten all the tests done.

“There’s a great opportunity to use a cellphone to improve personal health-care monitoring and delivery,” says Rappaport. “Cellphones can be tied in to prescriptions, medications and doctor instructions. This would be a great added value without a lot of overhead.” Gbenga Ogedegbe, M.D., a member of the WIRELESS faculty, is leading some early trials.

Looking Ahead

“I believe the wireless hospital will have to take off because of the pressure to reduce costs: Technology will be used to reduce costs of health care,” says Panwar. “Up till now, it’s been littered with failure, but at some time someone will come along with the right mix of luck, talent and money. It’s almost inevitable: better health records, better billing, life-saving techniques. There are huge opportunities for cost savings and better care based on better use of technology.”

NYU WIRELESS is likely to play a major role. “The new center is bigger than any one professor or campus,” says Rappaport. “It’s a melting pot of great talents to solve ideas. Our engineering and other students will become very knowledgeable thought leaders and will implement the future of the tech world.”