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Sensing the body at all scales

Applications and challenges of sensing technology have been accelerated by Covid-19.
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SENSE.nano poster featuring a circle divided into quadrants with a different image in each: a cell, a brain scan, Earth, a human eye
Advances in sensors and sensing technologies are advancing our understanding of the body at all scales, from subcellular structures to entire populations, according to speakers at the 2020 SENSE.nano Symposium.
Image courtesy MIT.nano.

Sensors that track everything from infection in the lungs to WiFi usage on a busy university campus are poised to enhance our understanding of, and approach to improving, human health at many levels — a trend that has been accelerated by the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, researchers and experts said at the 2020 SENSE.nano Symposium.

Videos from the event are now available online, so anyone can view the presentations and panel discussions featuring leaders from research and industry, representatives of MIT-launched startup companies, and current MIT graduate students.

Held online earlier this semester, the symposium offered a glimpse at how sensing technologies are being used to sense and quantify life at all scales, from subcellular up to large populations. It was the fourth annual meeting organized by SENSE.nano around significant themes relevant to disciplines and industries with a focus on sensors, sensing systems, and sensing technologies.

“Delivering SENSE.nano as a virtual, online event permitted more than 600 individuals from 250 organizations to join us for the three half-days of the symposium,” says Vladimir Bulović, founding faculty director of MIT.nano and Fariborz Maseeh Professor of Emerging Technology. “Over 80 percent of attendees were from industry, fulfilling our goal of relating academic discoveries to practitioners who can broadly scale these ideas.”

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Professor Elazer Edelman, director of the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science and Edward J. Poitras Professor in Medical Engineering and Science at MIT, gave the opening keynote on the first day of the 2020 SENSE.nano Symposium.

See the full agenda and watch videos of the speakers and sessions.

The event featured sessions on sensing at four levels: cell and subcellular, organs, body systems, and populations. “The focus was on life as a system. The functions of the body and how we interact as human beings was celebrated across the scales at SENSE.nano 2020,” says Brian W. Anthony, associate director of MIT.nano and faculty lead for the Industry Immersion Program in Mechanical Engineering. “The SENSE event helped to highlight what is happening at these different scales, made explicit some connections across research domains, and hopefully also made explicit some opportunities.”

Several of the presentations focused on applications for the current pandemic. Speakers discussed rapid antigen detection for infectious pathogens, detecting Covid-19-related changes in the voice using mobile phones, and understanding how pandemic misinformation propagates through social media, among other topics. One panel discussion offered insights into how the pandemic is affecting workspace design, clinical testing, and child development; another panel discussion offered insight into unique needs and opportunities for commercial innovations.

Elazer Edelman, director of the MIT Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES) and keynote speaker on day one of the symposium, offered a historical perspective on sensing the body through the lens of his care for a cardiovascular patient who developed Covid-19. From Leonardo da Vinci’s glass models of heart circulation to the 19 pieces of equipment collecting data from the cardiovascular patient’s hospital bed, health care has been transformed by a “marriage between medicine and science and engineering technology at all scales that has actually changed our lives,” Edelman said.

Researchers working at the cutting edge of sensing technology must commit to sharing their findings, cautioned Edelman, who also serves as the Edward J. Poitras Professor in Medical Engineering and Science at MIT. “The most important thing, I think, is to realize that engineers like us, scientists like us, clinicians like us, have a responsibility to the community, not simply to the clinic or the hospital. The most important thing we can do, therefore, is get all of our technology as quickly as possible out into the general population.”

Digital technology “is finally becoming mature enough and is giving us the tools to revolutionize how healthcare will be delivered,” said Brendan Cronin, director of Digital Healthcare Group at Analog Devices and keynote speaker on day two of the symposium. “Nano sensors will be used to diagnose illness faster and be used to invent new medicine in the case of synthetic biology, smart devices will routinely monitor our bodies and the environment and help manage our disease in a semi- or autonomous way, [and] doctors will routinely use digital tools to predict acute events rather than react to them,” he said.

Sensing technologies face many of the same challenges of acceptance, equity, and ease of use that are found throughout health care, researchers suggested in another panel discussion. Sensors and sensing systems need to be developed with guidance from users on exactly what information or decisions they need to make with this data, while taking advantage of ubiquitous technologies such as mobile phones, they noted. Speakers also cautioned against developing technologies and systems that replicate the biases against people of color and women that have led to unequal care in the past.

The symposium was sponsored by MIT.nano, the MIT Industrial Liaison Program, MIT Institute for Medical Engineering and Science, and the MIT Clinical Research Center.

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