Alan Chow, who is president and chief executive officer of Optobionics, shows that there's a lot an engineer can learn from a doctor. Chow's Wheaton, Ill., biotechnology company makes implantable, silicon retinas. Whether the device, which is now in clinical trials, succeeds at bringing sight to the blind, it will have clearly demonstrated the importance of trying. And that process is a textbook example of the challenges facing engineers in the coming century, and the extraordinary results they can produce by combining their talents with a broad view of the world and the problems waiting to be solved.
Chow was born in Hong Kong in the early 1950s, and moved with his family to the United States in 1958. His father was a mechanical engineer, his mother a chemical engineer. Despite this pedigree, however, Chow decided to pursue a career in medicine. After graduating from the University of Chicago, he went on to Loyola University's medical school and ultimately to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he completed a fellowship in the genetics of the eye.
Still, Chow was always deeply involved in engineering. In high school he built a laser and integrated it with a microscope that allowed him to perform microsurgery on cells. And after medical school he helped design observatory telescopes. After high school he was hired at G. D. Searle, the chemicals company that is now part of Monsanto, where he worked in the group that invented NutraSweet. "I have been a self-taught engineer," said Chow, who owns roughly a dozen patents.
The foundation for Optobionics was laid more than a decade ago, in the aftermath of a Thanksgiving dinner. After the meal, Alan and his older brother Vincent, an electrical engineer, began talking about the possibility of using silicon technology to bring sight to the blind. As Vincent, who had spent eight years working in the chip business, understood it, "Anything that dealt with semiconductor processing usually involved a tremendous amount of money." And he knew where to find it.
Other scientists had shown that you could stimulate the retina with electrons and get people who were almost completely blind to "see" flashes of light. So the notion of using a chip to do so wasn't so farfetched. "But we had to fill in some of the missing puzzle pieces," said Chow. "There was no device off the shelf to integrate" the silicon technology with the biology of the eye.
|Alan Chow epitomizes the doctor who needs to
engineer his own solution for a medical condition
by applying his natural tendency to experiment. |
Although they engineered a prototype within two or three years, it was about 150 microns thick-far too cumbersome for use in patients. Now they're dealing with material that's less than 25 microns thick, but that presents some new challenges. "Once you migrate past 50 to 75 microns it becomes very difficult to handle the material, and [the retinas] have to be handled" during the implant surgery.
The product that the Chow brothers ultimately came up with is a graded analog potential that sits underneath the retinal tissue where the photochemical processes occur. It's worth noting that the retina doubles as an optical switch for telecommunications devices by virtue of its ability to manage data packets entirely in the optical domain, Chow said.
In a recent experimental trial, three patients received the implants, which appear to be receiving signals-though Chow is prevented from discussing test results.
In its current incarnation, the Optobionics device will never deliver full sight. But its inventors hope that it will stimulate the nerves enough to allow a blind person to recognize faces and shapes, and perceive the layouts of rooms-triumphs that would be far from trivial for someone used to darkness.
While Alan Chow comes to engineering from a more heterodox perspective, his brother is the poster boy for the pure double E. In fact, there's hardly an area of the field he hasn't covered in his career.
Vincent Chow, the vice president of engineering for the family business, got his BSEE from Illinois Institute of Technology in South Chicago, and went to work at Honeywell and then to an IC company, where he began working on failure analysis.
From his own experience, Vincent Chow offers this advice to engineers who want to keep their options open: Be inquisitive. "Asking questions is a very important attribute. A person has to feel comfortable asking questions, no matter how foolish they may sound, because you need to know the answers." To job seekers looking for a career in biomedical engineering, he has these words: "I would be looking for someone who has not just a narrow focus based on education, but the ability to apply what they learn outside the primary area of their expertise. I think there's an explosion of possibilities with the potential integration of traditional electrical engineering with bioengineering," Chow said. "What we're doing is a demonstration of this."
Dr. William Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering, pointed out that,"these applications will all involve EE talents, but the most exciting will require talents of many kinds of engineering." They will involve MEMS, and so mechanical engineering skills, said Wulf, a computer scientist. "They will involve some degree of 'intelligence,' and so computer sciences and chemical engineers. They will involve novel materials, and so material sciences and engineering. Some will involve chemical analysis and processing, and so chemical engineers," Wulf said.