Biomedical engineer speaks about his pioneering work

Thursday 18 September, 2014

During a visit to Warrane on 18 September 2014, one of Australia’s leading biomedical engineers, Professor Hung T. Nguyen, gave residents a tour of the ground-breaking work being done at the Centre for Health Technologies at the University of Technology, Sydney.

Prof Nguyen, a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) and a finalist for NSW Australian of the Year in 2012, is Dean of the UTS Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology, Professor of Electrical Engineering and Co-Director of the Centre.

He has been involved with research in the areas of biomedical engineering, advanced control and artificial intelligence for more than 20 years and has developed several biomedical devices and systems for diabetes, disability, cardiovascular diseases and breast cancer.

He explained that he combined degrees in engineering and medicine because he wanted to be an engineer, but his father wanted him to go into medicine.

Over the years, he explained, he has been drawn to non-invasive biomedical engineering and using interdisciplinary research to help develop many innovative new medical devices.

The research of the Centre for Health Technologies has involved biomedical instrumentation, artificial organs, sports science, gene therapy, stem cell research, antibody therapy, and transcriptome research.

His most ground-breaking work has included inventions making it possible to control a wheelchair by thoughts alone, and early detection of breast cancer using stealth technology.

Among the non-invasive medical devices he has helped to create is a hypoglycaemia monitor for diabetes sufferers. He explained it helped to monitor low blood sugar by combining basic science, biomedical instrumentation, advance control, and artificial intelligence.

“Low blood sugar can be potentially life threatening,” he said. “When blood glucose levels reach a very low level the brain shuts down and brain waves disappear.”

If this persists for up to 20 minutes, the patient could die. To help prevent this, Professor Nguyen developed a device known as a Non-invasive Continuous Glucose Monitoring System.

The device works better than other monitoring devices which directly measure blood glucose levels because earlier devices could involve a time delay of up to 20 minutes.

“We looked at a way to develop a unique, non-invasive continuous hypoglycaemia monitor using an electrocardiogram (ECG),” he said. “Instead of using direct measurement of glucose levels we took ECGs and deciphered the information.

“With direct measurement, some carers could feel the need to get up every two hours (during the night) for the measurement to be taken for young patients with type 1 diabetes.

“If blood glucose goes down very low, a person can go into a coma. So measuring the ECG in real time and then deciphering the information saves lives and improves life quality for type 1 diabetes sufferers.”

The device works by establishing when a diabetic is about to have an attack and responding by sounding an alarm that wakes the wearer and others in the house.

It has been estimated that the invention could help to save the lives of thousands of diabetes sufferers.

Speaking about his wheelchair research, Professor Nguyen said his team had developed a number of different techniques to control a wheelchair, including a device located in a hat worn by the user and one which navigated using a person’s brain waves.

With the first type users controlled the wheelchair by nodding their head in the direction they wanted to move in. The second device used a headset with electrodes that detects brain waves, transmitting the results wirelessly to a controller. At the same time, an on-board computer interprets the visual information from lasers or cameras, creating 360-degree map to help steer the chair.

“Navigation is done by association,” Professor Nguyen said. “You don’t think ‘right’, you don’t think ‘left’, you have to associate it… So anybody can use it, even if you speak a different language, because of association.”

Software used for the wheelchair is even able to detect brain-wave activity associated with mental fatigue and responds by slowing down the wheelchair.

“So essentially, it will interact with the user and can provide certain intelligence,” Professor Nguyen said.

The controlling device can detect when other people are walking in front of the wheelchair and responds by getting out of the way before the user is even aware of the problem.

During a Q&A session, he said that the commercial potential of the devices he was working on was very sensitive to the high cost and long lead time before they can be brought to market.

Professor Nguyen said because the thought-controlled wheelchair was still expensive it was necessary to continue to improve the technology in order to make it more affordable. Another application being explored involved using the technology to assist sufferers of Parkinson’s disease by predicting when they are in danger of falling down from freezing of gait.

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