Research Magazine 2006

Smitha Rao

Building tiny robots to deliver drugs to patients

Smitha Rao
Chronic pain sufferers, diabetics and chemotherapy patients may benefit from doctoral student Smitha Rao's research on tiny drug delivery systems implanted near the organs needing treatment.

Coming from a family of doctors and engineers, it makes sense that doctoral student Smitha Rao would be at the forefront of biomedical research, working with the UT Arlington Automation & Robotics Research Institute to create implantable drug delivery systems.

“I’ve always been interested in medicine and medical-related fields,” she says.

So much so that she originally intended to be a surgeon. But as an undergraduate at Bangalore Institute of Technology in India, Rao had only two options: dental school or engineering. Considering her interest in medicine, she chose Bangalore Dental College. But her academic path would soon take an unexpected turn after she opened a wrong door. 

“I was ready for a lab with skeletons hanging from the wall and specimen jars, but instead I saw the pale face of a cadaver being carried out of this room,” said Rao, who had accidentally walked into BDC’s morgue. “I just stood there, realized I would never be able to cut anything, and thought that was the end of my dreams for medicine.”

Consequently, Rao graduated with a telecommunications degree from BIT. When she began her graduate study related to the semiconductor field, friends at UT Arlington encouraged her to look into the University’s electrical engineering program. She was impressed, and she began her master’s work in spring 2002.

It was a fiber optics course taught by electrical engineering Associate Professor J.C. Chiao that would breathe new life into Rao’s dream.

“He talked about the benefits of fiber optics in the field of medicine, so I approached him about working on a project together,” Rao recalled. Dr. Chiao guided her toward MEMS, or microelectromechanical systems, a technology that builds micro-scale robots suitable for “in vivo” medical applications.

When it came time to choose an area of study for her doctorate, Rao was fully immersed in bioMEMS, which applies MEMS technology to the biomedical and health sciences.

Under the direction of Chiao and Dan Popa, assistant professor of electrical engineering, Rao began researching implantable drug delivery systems. Chronic pain sufferers, diabetics and chemotherapy patients could benefit from such systems because they create more mobility (eliminating bedside treatment) and limit trauma to healthy cells.

“If the system is easy enough, patients could even administer the medicine themselves without having to rely on regular trips to the doctor or hospital,” Rao said.

Each device is envisioned to have a reservoir for the medicine and is located near the target organ. The reservoir is filled using an intravenous port beneath the skin; the actual drug delivery device consists of a MEMS chip, about five centimeters wide at any point and not more than one centimeter deep.

Issues being addressed include whether the device can control the drug flow, if the device can be tracked to see how much of the drug is remaining, and if it can handle several different medicines and dosages.

“We’ve also looked at using wireless sensors that would communicate with an external device that sits in the patient’s pocket, much like a pager, and would give indications about reservoir levels and mechanical status with the pump,” Rao said.

Because the system is in its infancy, Rao plans to continue the research after she receives her doctorate in electrical engineering a few years from now.

“I would like to see this device, or some form of it, being widely used in the medical field,” she said.

There is no questioning Rao’s passion for her work. Not only did she have the best student paper in the 2005 TexMEMS Conference, but she also organized the 2005 ARRI Tech Fest Student Conference, won the ARRI Best Student Award and has already published three technical papers.

“Smitha has a unique ability,” Chiao said. “She can quickly absorb knowledge that is out of her major or fields and come up with new ideas.”

“Research, to me, is a combination of understanding—being able to apply and analyze with creativity,” Rao said. “Once you have creativity added in, you open a huge box of unknowns and can be amazed at what you find.”

— Susan M. Slupecki