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Originally published Monday, December 11, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Brier Dudley

Bright light for biotech could be UW

Biotech has been a little disappointing lately, from an economic-development perspective. The loss of Icos, in particular, pours cold water...

Seattle Times staff columnist

Biotech has been a little disappointing lately, from an economic-development perspective.

The loss of Icos, in particular, pours cold water on the cheerleading by politicians who hailed the industry as the region's next big thing while subsidizing Paul Allen's biotech office, condo and trolley projects.

We could use some uplifting news from the sector, and it may be coming from the University of Washington.

With help from several newcomers, the engineering and medical schools are trying to create a world-class neuroengineering research center that could raise the school's profile in the emerging field of brain-powered robotics.

Within two years, the center could begin transferring research to biotech companies, said Matthew O'Donnell, the new dean of engineering.

O'Donnell, who led the University of Michigan's bioengineering department, is working with faculty to identify areas to emphasize over the next five years. Neuroengineering is an early favorite.

The UW did early research in the field in the 1970s and it's a leader in neuroscience, medical-device engineering and computer science. Those are components of the field described as neuroengineering, smart prosthetics or bionics.

Efforts to create a center gained momentum in late summer when the computer-science department hired a star robotics researcher, Yoky Matsuoka, founder of the Neurobotics Laboratory at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. She came to the UW while her husband, a computer-vision expert, was lured by Microsoft Research.

"It's the right time, right place, right people to do this," O'Donnell said. "Having a very strong computational component is essential, and that's what Yoky brought to that — she's an essential piece."

Scientists have explored ways to control devices with the brain since the 1960s, but the field is taking off with new technology. Meanwhile, aging baby boomers are expanding the market for products to cope with neurological disorders and the government is funding prosthetics research to help maimed soldiers returning from Iraq.

It's the technology the bionic man had in the 1970s TV show "The Six Million Dollar Man," but Matsuoka is more interested in devices that would help rehabilitate victims of stroke, spinal-cord injuries or Parkinson's disease.

Sensors could communicate with chips in the nervous system and transmit information to a handheld computer or robotic device to move paralyzed body parts.

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"We're starting to see the first baby steps in this with real applications, that you can control a prosthetic arm, that you can make dynamic prostheses for the leg, so it's, 'Where do we go from here?' " O'Donnell said.

Matsuoka thinks a center could raise UW from a top 10 neuroengineering school to one of the top three. "UW has always had incredibly top-notch, famous people in neuroscience," she said. "What I'm hoping to do is connect all those people up, re-energize them."

Seattle isn't a bioengineering capital like Boston but it has a good start, with NeuroBionics and Northstar Neuroscience making products for stroke and other brain-disorder victims.

Microsoft is increasing its focus on robotics and biomedical computing, and there's Allen's Institute for Brain Science research venture.

Who knew the pieces were mostly there for what could be the local biotech industry's next phase?

Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com

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About Brier Dudley

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
bdudley@seattletimes.com | 206-515-5687

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