Spotlight on Georgia Malandraki

May 29, 2019

Imagine a speed dating event for researchers, and the possible matches. Remove the romance but add the possibilities for miraculous interdisciplinary partnering. It was at just such an event, hosted by Discovery Park’s Purdue Institute for Integrative Neuroscience (PIIN) that speech and hearing sciences researcher Georgia Malandraki met biomedical and mechanical engineer Chi Hwan Lee. For the millions who suffer from swallowing disorders, it was a match made in heaven.

In the U.S. alone, approximately 10 million adults are diagnosed with swallowing disorders--medically known as dysphagia--per year, says Malandraki, an expert in this field. Characteristically, 50 to 75% of stroke patients and 40 to 80% of children with cerebral palsy have dysphagia. Untreated or ineffectively treated, dysphagia can lead to devastating consequences, such as malnutrition, dehydration, pneumonia from aspiration of foods and liquids into the lungs, or death.

“Dysphagia interferes with a patient’s ability to eat, grow, and have a normal happy life. Imagine how devastating it would be if every single time you took a sip of your water or a bite of your food, you coughed/choked, spilled your food, or had very severe throat pain,” Malandraki says.

Malandraki is an associate professor of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences who studies swallowing physiology and neurophysiology in healthy individuals and in patients with dysphagia caused by neurologic disorders including cerebral palsy, stroke and Parkinson’s disease. Lee is an assistant professor of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering whose research focuses on developing soft materials and electronics for uses in wearable biomedical application. The two talked at the interdisciplinary junior faculty mixer, discovered a common interest, got together later and brainstormed, and applied for a small PIIN Life Sciences seed grant led by Malandraki and one of her doctoral students. That funding enabled work that led to multiple larger awards and resulted in a start-up providing wearable sensors that could enable global telemedicine support for patients affected by swallowing disorders.

“Our team combines Lee’s expertise in developing wearable sensors with my expertise in both swallowing neurophysiology and telehealth,” Malandraki says. “We are very excited about this collaborative endeavor that has the potential to change dysphagia practice and help millions of patients across the globe.”

The newly formed interdisciplinary team applied for PIIN Life Sciences seed funding to support research on a next-generation wearable sensor that will wirelessly transmit performance data to clinicians, allowing them to monitor a patient’s progress and make needed adjustments in therapy. The $9,000 seed funding helped the researchers get to work collecting preliminary data, and to receive a Showalter Trust Award in 2018. The team has now submitted an NIH NBIB R21 grant, and a SBIR through their start-up, Curasis, is planned for next year.

Malandraki’s interest in telemedicine support began during her doctoral studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign where she worked on the first large-scale telemedicine program in the U.S. to remotely evaluate swallowing disorders. The positive results, coupled with Malandraki’s experience as a native of Greece where resources in the area of dysphagia are limited, fueled her interest in exploring ways to improve access to care for as many patients as possible.

In December 2018, with input from senior advisors including Distinguished Professor Anne Smith and business advisors from the Purdue Foundry, the Malandraki and Lee team created a start-up, Curasis. The first of several patents related to the wearable sensors has resulted in a prototype device known as the Tele-EaT sensors system. It is a non-invasive, wearable and affordable surface EMG sensor system specifically designed to record high-quality muscle activity signals from the challenging curvilinear head and neck area, Malandraki says. The system will allow patients to wear a sticker-like patch that conforms to the skin, perform their swallowing exercises, and receive immediate critical feedback via an app—all from home.

“Internal funds from the Purdue Institute for Integrative Neuroscience and the Office of the Executive Vice President for Research and Partnerships were instrumental in the initial efforts to develop the first versions of the prototype of the Tele-EaT sensors,” Malandraki says. “The most exciting thing about this work is that it will help us more rapidly translate our findings in the lab to the clinical world and directly impact our patients’ lives.”

Story by Linda Carrick Thomas