BEERSHEVA, ISRAEL — Beersheva has truly become a college town.
The city has grown and commercialized, full of shopping malls with American outlet brands, Israeli restaurants and affable residential communities.
And in the center of it all is Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU).
Inside its tall concrete buildings reside dozens of labs and researchers working toward advancing biomedicine through robotics, AI (artificial intelligence) and neurosciences.
BGU, born in 1969 out of former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s vision for a thriving city life in the Negev, has grown to now more than 20,000 students (plus hundreds of the notorious stray cats who filter in and out of open promenades).
The campus is massive, with security checkpoints at all entryways, yet is projected to almost double in size within the next 20 years.
The advancement of technologies available at BGU has allowed the surrounding areas of the city to expand as well. The Old City of Beersheva has increased in residents and tourists, and new highways throughout the desert are making commutes easier and faster.
“The university has always been for the community,” said Rivka Carmi, BGU president, “but also on issues like education in the Negev, a lot of educational programs are tailor-made to the special community that we have here.”
Two years ago, Beersheva was named one of seven “cities of tomorrow” for technology and life sciences by T3 Advisors and Brandeis International Business School’s Global Technology Emerging Markets, which can be credited to the automation coming out of BGU.
The future of biomedical technology begins in Israel, and starts with startups.
ElMindA, an Israeli startup founded by BGU Professor Amir Geva, developed the BNA technology platform, which analyzes the human brain’s neural networks and captures that data for future research into brain health and function.
Roughly 2 billion people worldwide suffer from brain-related disorders, but the technology used to examine them — CT, MRI, fMRI or PET scans — can’t discern the actual functions of the brain, like memory and sensory processing.
That’s where ElMindA comes in.
Headquartered in Herzliya, ElMindA maps the functions of the brain using technology that Geva compared to that of Google Maps.
Just as the Google car drives through neighborhoods with a camera on top, capturing images for its Street View database, ElMindA is trying to understand functions of the brain by mapping them against other brain data to see if there are gaps or dysfunctions, so more disorders can be resolved.
Though still in the beginning stages, they already have collected data on the brains of more than 1,000 patients in Israel.
“It’s the largest database that exists in electrical signals from the brain, both in universities and other companies,” Geva said, “but it’s not enough. We need more data, like Google has, and others.”
ElMindA measures brain imaging with a 64-electrode cap — it looks like a plastic wig with the texture of a damp octopus — that is first dipped in an electrolyte “bath.”
While wearing the cap, the patient answers a series of questions and simple tests on a computer screen. The cap collects data and records the response times of the person while completing these actions.
The technology is also ideal for athletes or children who suffer concussions.
“We know today that if you get a concussion, after concussion without recovery, that will cause permanent damage to your brain,” said Efrat Marmur, vice president of strategic marketing. “So our system can provide an objective look of the brain and can tell the neurologists, the parents of the athlete, if it is safe to go back to play or not.”
This testing took place at the Rio Olympics last summer. They took baseline data for different athletes, then measured their brain networks before and after injuries.
After several tests, they cleared an athlete when tests showed he was concussion-free in a faster process than other scans.
Other technology is working more directly in the body.
David Zarrouk, senior lecturer in the BGU Department of Mechanical Engineering and director of the Bio-Inspired and Medical Robotics Laboratory, creates biomedical robots.
Most of the robots he works with are bio-inspired, using animals like lizards as models.
Prior research shows that as a lizard runs away, the tail moves toward the body. Zarrouk, and many others, used the lizard’s stabilization method as inspiration for simpler robotic movements.
“Building robots exactly like animals is practically impossible,” he said. “Don’t try to make things complex if you don’t have to. On the other hand, finding the simplest solution is very, very challenging.”
Wave motions can be found elsewhere in nature: in alligators, snakes, even Michael Phelps.
That concept was applied to several prototypes in Zarrouk’s lab, like a wheeled off-road robot.
Going over rough surfaces in challenging environments is difficult on wheels.
Zarrouk and his team are working on a wheeled robot — similar to the structure of a Mars probe — used for search and rescue missions, as well as for scurrying through the Gaza tunnels.
It shifts like a cockroach: It moves its arms parallel to the body, but can also move its body up and down to lay flat.
But robots even smaller than roaches are being used directly inside the body.
They begin as a swallowable pill that moves and passes through the small intestine, which takes about eight to 12 hours. It films the process to better understand the anatomy, but there are disadvantages.
Often the camera battery dies before it finishes, leaving out some images of the intestine. The pill may also get stuck in one place for 10 minutes and then suddenly slip 10 centimeters, missing an entire scope of the organ.
“A doctor would want to see the pill going backward and forward, going different directions,” Zarrouk said, “so he wants the robot to stop in a place. This doesn’t exist today. We’re trying to develop a robotic camera capsule.”
So far, he’s come up with another robot that would do just that, which moves through wave-like motions like that of a swimmer.
It is activated by only one motor, which allows it to be small in size and move in continuous motions through viscous liquids.
It can be scaled up for search and rescue missions — with less damage than the previously mentioned bot — or miniaturized to travel through the human body for biopsy imaging.
Other nearby startups, like DiACardio, are also working on life-saving imaging technology.
DiACardio has set up shop just shy of the BGU campus. The startup has created software that makes echocardiographic evaluation faster and more accurate.
The technology is essentially an ultrasound of the heart. Based on several algorithms, the software detects the heart’s ventricle walls and assesses its performance.
It is less expensive than common manual tools, visual estimations or MRIs, and is FDA-approved.
These tools detect signs of heart failure. Current echocardiograms relay a “noisy picture,” said CEO Hila Goldman-Aslan, one of DiACardio’s three female founders.
“DiACardio invented new image-processing technology based on advanced pattern recognition in machinery and algorithms that can mark, track and find parameters physicians are looking for when evaluating medical images,” she said. “So what we are trying to do is take the subjectivity out of the imaging evaluation and help the physicians to diagnose with confidence.”
Goldman-Aslan noted that heart disease is the leading cause of death in the world. Even more worrisome, one in 50 heart attacks is misdiagnosed.
“Our vision is not only to be able to provide fully automated tools for the heart but also to use the technology to be helpful and bring other automated tools to other areas,” she added. “Right now we are focusing on the heart, but our vision is to be explorers to other areas of interest.”
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