Each week, staff writer Paul Wood chats with a high-tech difference-maker. This week, meet SIDDHARTH KRISHNAN, a Ph.D. candidate in the University of Illinois Department of Materials Science and Engineering who has been named the Illinois Innovation Prize winner for 2019. He has developed a noninvasive, wearable shunt-failure monitor for patients with hydrocephalus, the buildup of fluid in the cavities deep within the brain.
Have you been awarded your Ph.D.? If so, what are you headed next?
I just defended my Ph.D. in May and will formally receive my degree in August. I’m moving to MIT to pursue a postdoc in Professor Robert Langer’s group in July.
Why is this research important?
The condition and is the most common reason for brain surgeries in children. The estimated medical costs for hydrocephalus are over $2 billion per year. The shunt-failure monitor has the potential to bring down the costs associated with expensive, inaccurate and painful diagnostic testing.
Are you working with the John Rogers group? He was a legend when he was at the Urbana campus.
Yes, I’m one of Professor Rogers’ Ph.D. students. I’m very fortunate to have an adviser like him. He combines an incredibly broad, deep scientific background with a strong motivation to build technologies with real impact. He has been a fantastic mentor.
Why did you chose hydrocephalus as a condition you wanted to work on?
In the beginning (around 2015), as an engineer, I didn’t really know much about hydrocephalus. We were developing a class of wearable devices to measure heat flow through near-surface layers of the skin as a means to quantify thermal transport properties, as they related to blood flow and skin hydration. These research efforts were done in the context of open-ended academic inquiry, without a particular application in mind. At the time, we were fortunate enough to connect with some world-class neurosurgeons at Northwestern University, who pointed out that wearable flow sensors could have a huge impact in the context of shunt diagnostics for patients with hydrocephalus.
How has that progressed?
Since then, we’ve interacted with several patients and I have witnessed how problematic shunts can be. Shunts are a life-saving technology — the problem is that when they fail, it’s extremely difficult to distinguish the symptoms of shunt failure from those of simple headaches or colds. Because they have high failure rates, it means that every headache could potentially be a shunt-related problem, and this usually means a trip to the emergency room, followed by lots of imaging, which can come with radiation risks. For the pediatric population, in particular, this can make living a normal life very challenging. Interacting with these patients and learning more about the condition has been a strong motivator for me to work on this problem.
Have you patented this device, and do you have a start-up in the works?
Yes, the core technology underlying the device is patented and there is a startup company, Rhaeos Inc., to license the technology and commercialize it.
Who else is on your team?
The core folks who have helped develop the technology so far, in addition to myself, are Professor Rogers and Dr. Amit Ayer and Dr. Matthew Potts, both in the department of neurosurgery at Northwestern.
TECH TIDBITS ... from SIDDHARTH KRISHNAN
Do you have a favorite thing to follow on social media, or an app you really love? Nothing too out there! I follow the New York Times, Wired, MIT Tech review and several academic journals on Twitter.
Book or Kindle? What are you reading right now? Book over Kindle, though I do own a Kindle. Currently I’m reading “The Gene” by Siddhartha Mukherjee. It’s fascinating, but quite a dense read. I’m moving through it slowly.
Do you have any wearable electronics? Just one item: a My Skin Track UV device (measuring things like pollution and pollen), launched by L’Oreal, whose core technology comes from the Rogers group.
Do you have an entrepreneur hero? No one in particular. I have a lot of respect for anyone who has been able to bring a successful medical device to market and have it deployed clinically. There are several barriers to entry, and it’s not easy.