Knee implants have done wonders. Keat Ghee Ong wants to make them even smarter in his new position as the Portage Health Foundation Endowed Professor of Technological Innovations in Health.
Bones respond to mechanical forces. Just the right amount of pressure actually helps them grow better after, say, a knee implant surgery or a bone fracture following a car accident.
"In a big injury, the bones cannot heal themselves and they need a fixation plate," Ong says. "What I'm trying to do is make that plate smart, so it can tell exactly if there's too much mechanical loading, too much force, as the bones grow back together."
Such a smart plate could read what happens as a patient walks or goes through physical therapy, and possibly warn doctors of continually weak areas. Ong has published research on developing real-time biosensors including internal implants and wound suture devices.
Bringing about these devices is a collaboration. Ong says his position is meant to bridge engineering development and the patient experience by integrating research from material science to kinesiology. In addition to interdisciplinary research between Michigan Tech departments with support from the Portage Health Foundation, Ong's work has involved researchers from Mayo Clinic. He also wants to incorporate feedback from local patients.
"I live locally and a lot of my research is also based locally. The focus of my work is to inspire innovation—we're getting that conversation started."Keat Ghee Ong
Ong is joining other thinkers, inventors, movers and shakers to push for better health science in the Upper Peninsula through a $2.5 million grant from the Portage Health Foundation. Michigan Tech will match and exceed the grant, bringing the total to more than $6 million; the funds will support three endowed professors including Ong's. The five-year grant also makes scholarships available to undergraduate students, helps support graduate student positions and funds research to improve health infrastructure and economic growth in Keweenaw, Houghton, Baraga and Gogebic counties.
"This particular Portage Health Foundation endowed area of health technologies is really important because it draws upon many strengths at Michigan Tech," says Jason Carter, who is the lead researcher on the grant and the Chair of the Department of Kinesiology and Integrative Physiology at Michigan Tech.
He says there is great opportunity to create businesses and jobs in the community.
"We've seen several successful start-up companies emerge from Michigan Tech research in areas such as electronics, and we believe there is huge potential with medical technologies," Carter says.
He adds that the partnership between Michigan Tech and the Portage Health Foundation is an unprecedented collaboration. Medical science, engineering and technology are only going to expand; this collaboration is positioned to be a big part of that within Michigan. Ong's work in particular will push the boundaries of medical research hubs, expanding innovation on the shores of Lake Superior.
"Ong has been steadily emerging as a leader in health technologies research on our campus. It will be exciting to see him take the next step by taking more ownership on campus-wide leadership of health technologies research and, more importantly, being a conduit to our local community."Jason Carter
Global Research, Local Impact
Ong's biomedical engineering research gets at the universal well-being of all people—he wants everyone to have access to better technologies that can improve their recovery from surgery and injury. But he also says he is equally invested in making an impact in the Keweenaw region, which is what impressed Kevin Store, the executive director of the Portage Health Foundation.
Store agrees that the collaboration is about engaging Michigan Tech in local dialogue. Specifically, he wants to see increased discussion about the social factors affecting locals' health with tailored best practices for community health and education opportunities.
"As for the foundation, we exist to serve the broader community and we are working hard to be a deliberate and mindful steward of this community resource." Kevin Store
He adds that boosting the regional economy with technology manufacturing and marketing is also important. And that's where Ong's research comes in—and for Ong himself, that research is more than committing to time in a lab. It's about committing to the Keweenaw.
"This place is very weird—it can take a long time to grow on you, but once it does, you'll probably never leave," says Ong, a decade-long resident. Building community along with stronger bones is a key goal of his new endowed professorship that goes beyond the indirect benefits of bringing in research dollars, more students and supporting local business.
"How can we make direct impacts with our research?" he asks. "The purpose of this grant is to think about that and start to make a difference."
Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 60 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.