International ‘Window to the Brain’ Research Team Gathers at UC Riverside

Scientists from the U.S. and Mexico are working to make their therapeutic transparent skull implant a reality for patients with brain disorders

A photo of the research team

The Window to the Brain research team at the 2016 SOMBRERO team meeting at the University of California, Riverside.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (www.ucr.edu) — Researchers from the University of California, Riverside, the University of California, San Diego, and three leading research institutions in Mexico gathered at UCR this week to advance their “Window to the Brain” transparent skull implant.

The implant will allow doctors to deliver laser-based treatments to the brain on demand and on a recurring basis without the need for surgeons to open up the skull, a highly invasive procedure called a craniotomy. The Window to the Brain would provide new treatment options for patients with life-threatening neurological disorders, including brain cancers, traumatic brain injuries, neurodegenerative diseases, and stroke.

Among the topics presented at the two-day symposium were the optimization of the implant material, its biocompatibility, and its ability to withstand bacterial infections. To allow light to pass through the scalp tissue covering the implant, researchers also shared how they are fabricating microneedles to deliver drugs that temporarily render the skin transparent.

The project is led by Guillermo Aguilar, professor and chair of mechanical engineering in UCR’s Bourns College of Engineering, and Santiago Camacho-López, from the Centro de Investigación Científica y de Educación Superior de Ensenada (CICESE) in México. The team comprises researchers in UCR’s Bourns College of Engineering and School of Medicine; UC San Diego; and three Mexican universities: CICESE; Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM); and Instituto Nacional de Astrofísica, Óptica y Electrónica (INAOE) in Puebla. Thirty-six undergraduates and graduate students have contributed to the project.

“This meeting enabled the participating groups to discuss the progress reached after nearly a year of hard work, share ideas to tackle the next phase of studies, and offer students who joined the project recently a broad perspective of its objectives,” Aguilar said. “I was very pleased to see how well organized and motivated our students are as they presented their work.”

An illustration showing how the Window to the Brain transparent brain implant created by UC Riverside researchers would work.

An illustration showing how the Window to the Brain transparent brain implant created by UC Riverside researchers would work.

The project began when a team led by Aguilar and Javier Garay, a former UCR professor who is now at UC San Diego, developed a transparent version of the material yttria-stabilized zirconia (YSZ)—a tough, impact resistant ceramic product that is already used in hip implants and dental crowns—and later tested its feasibility to be used as a cranial implant. Aguilar, Garay and Camacho-López also showed in previous studies that the optical properties of the transparent YSZ are suitable for laser-based therapies.

Last October, Aguilar and the Mexican researchers received almost $5 million to advance the project over five years. $3.6 million was from the National Science Foundation’s Partnerships in International Research and Education (PIRE) program, which pairs U.S. universities with others around the world. An additional $1 million was from Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología (CONACYT), Mexico’s entity in charge of promoting scientific and technological activities. The remainder of the money came from in-kind contributions from the Mexican universities. Work under those grants is titled “Synthesis of Optical Materials for Bioapplications: Research, Education, Recruitment and Outreach (SOMBRERO).”

The meeting in Riverside marked the one-year anniversary of the SOMBRERO program, and focused on research to determine the clinical viability of the implant. The team’s long-term goal is to see the technology become the standard of care for patients with brain disorders who would benefit from laser-based treatments.

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