Whether it’s the tech startup nestled in its beachside locale or the biotech researcher in his basement laboratory, Los Angeles has declared itself a player. Drawing from the diversity of its populace, the saturation of higher education, and the outside-the-box, free-thinker mindset of the Angeleno, the future is continually happening here.
Here includes the offices, laboratories, research facilities, and napkins covered with jotted down ideas of Dr. Y. C. Tai of CalTech and Dr. Mark Humayun of USC. Whether working individually or in collaboration, the two men have made immense progress in biotechnology, specifically ocular research and implants. They are fighting the noble fight and they are winning, one scientific advancement at a time.
His Caltech MEMS Lab is the only lab in the world to combine Mechanical and Electrical Engineering in an effort to prolong life
When Yu-Chong Tai was a graduate student at Berkeley, he took a step back to analyze the world he was wrapped up in, and he saw his peers lining up for jobs in Silicon Valley. Apple, yes please. Google, where do I sign?
While he didn’t always know exactly what he wanted, it was during his peers’ exodus that he slowly came to know what he didn’t want. “When I was in grad school at Berkeley in Silicon Valley, I looked around and saw young kids just like me and a big job market,” he recalls. “I didn’t want to be one of them; I wanted something different.”
When all was said and done, Tai wound up taking a more arduous – and less-traveled – path. As far back as the late 1980s, the Taiwanese native has been on the frontier of science. So much so that he was on the front lines when a new field, MEMS (micro electrical and mechanical systems), was birthed. It is within the field of MEMS that Tai began his greatest works, all of which combine the electrical and the mechanical aspects of engineering.
Tai envisions a future that allows him, his peers, and their devices to proactively solve crises of the human body through devices that have dual electrical and mechanical properties.
“If you can do electrical and mechanical, that means you have combined everything . . . our whole world is either electrical or mechanical, think about it. Light is electrical, sound is mechanical. If you go that deep and talk about physics, the whole world is either electrical or mechanical.”
It is one thing to be a brilliant, cutting-edge researcher. It is another thing entirely to be as passionate as you are brilliant, and Tai is just that. His passion is extremely evident in the effort he put forth in establishing the newly formed Caltech Medical Engineering Department. It is within this new department that he hopes to make his vision a reality, with help from external sources of all shapes and sizes.
Throughout his career, Tai has worked with professors, researchers, and investors from other universities and institutions, and he feels that through collaboration, success is attainable. “For the large area of LA, we saw tremendous opportunities, so we started working with USC and UCLA, and we want to work with Cedars, City of Hope, and Huntington Memorial.” As he explains his hopes for the big picture, he goes out of his way to ensure that his motives are understood. “The purpose for me is not to make money, I actually want this to happen . . . I look at the greater LA area and realize we can do it.”
Never have those four words, “we can do it,” seemed so attainable. So much of the work he has done is focused on the human eye, with a primary goal of curing diseases such as glaucoma and presbyopia. Beyond ocular research and device implementation, Tai wants to take the burden away from society and culture by lessening the load placed on the individual. He is well aware of the tolerance that can be formed when painkillers are self-administered regularly, and he believes he and the MEMS community have the technology to remove that from the equation, ensuring success.
Some of his most remarkable work does not involve the eye whatsoever but rather surrounds the zebrafish, a tiny fish that is able to heal its own heart. “You cut off or damage 20 percent of the zebrafish heart and it recovers 100 percent. With a human heart, if you have even slight damage, you may die. How does a fish do that?” he asks with inquisitive wonder. Tai has been actively monitoring the zebrafish courtesy of his electrocardiography (ECG) devices; his endgame is to apply what he learns to the human heart.
A man of extreme knowledge, he is anything but dry and incomprehensible. His passion for the work he does, and the future he hopes to aid, is infectious; his uncanny ability to break down such complex and daunting research and science into layman’s terms is refreshing.
Yet, humanity is his defining trait. He describes everything he has done, and is doing, as a social obligation. “This is humanity. We study new problems and discover new applications and invent new technologies. . . . We talk with other people, we see eye-to-eye, we get together, and things start to happen.”
When he takes a step back to ponder what lies ahead, Tai just hopes that his name, and his work, become easily accessible, well-known commodities. He strongly believes in youth and the power to make progressive change that lies in their hands. “We want young people to listen to us and to jump in and keep pushing this forward,” he says. “Then, some of these outrageous ideas become more and more normal.
“We are hoping in 10 years people will know us more; in 20 years people are using our devices, and in 30 to 50 years people can print them at home,” says Tai. As powerful a statement as that is, he is yet again able to bring it back around and put the onus on himself and his peers. “Medical engineering is not about going the first 90 yards and forgetting the final 10,” he summarizes. “We want to go the full 100 yards in reaching people.”
Former Innovator of the Year helping the blind to see
Dr. Mark Humayun, a fixture of the Southern California biotech community, is knee deep in ocular research and its bright possibilities. Originally from the East Coast, the director of the USC Eye Institute worked at John Hopkins until he migrated west and settled at USC. A pioneer in his field, Humayun started medical school without realizing his true calling, at first studying neurosurgery with the goal of becoming a brain surgeon.
Humayun says that his grandmother losing her sight due to complications with diabetes not only changed what he was studying but also the trajectory of his life. “It took extra years of my life and career; it definitely wasn’t a straight line . . . I was meandering through life at the time . . . there are certain people and events in your life that help you focus and [his grandmother losing her eyesight] made it clear.”
Humayun explained that in 1988 when he began research, nobody else was working in the field of ocular research. In 1992, Humayun caught his first break, courtesy of one tiny electrode. It was a minor operation, and the resulting tests showed that “the human eye, blind for decades, was still receptive. Even though [the patient] had not seen for 50 years, they were able to communicate what they saw.”
While this breakthrough was substantial, Humayun’s greatest efforts would not be fully realized until he headed out West.
The true impetus behind the move may as well have been manifest destiny, though in actuality it was Alfred Mann, the founder of Second Sight. Mann founded Second Sight largely based on research Humayun had conducted. Shortly after Humayun reached out to Mann in 1997, he found himself being offered the CEO position.
Though he did not take the job, Humayun did see the opportunity afforded to him were he to be out West. Looking back on the decision, he mentions a “geographical microcosm” in the region, citing the roughly 150 high-tech, entrepreneurial companies within a 30-mile radius of USC.
Humayun officially moved to Los Angeles in 2001; within a year he was implanting the Argus I (the first retinal prosthesis) in patients. A testament to the hard worker and dedicated researcher he is, Humayun quarterbacked the first surgery with a team of surgeons; the procedure took roughly seven hours.
By 2007, the Argus II was developed and also being implanted as part of an international study; today it is FDA and Medicare approved and is being sold throughout Europe and the Middle East.
Despite being wholly invested in ocular research, Humayun envisions a future in applying the technologies he is working with now to the rest of the human body. Pointing out that the body runs on electrical signals and that, “through these devices we are beginning to speak that language,” Humayun reasons that technology could allow specialists to “address all sorts of conditions, from your heart to your lungs; beyond your senses and brain and spinal cord.”
Though immersed in research and the limitless possibilities the future may hold, Humayun still finds time to practice medicine, and, as unlikely as this may seem, the 50-year-old medical wiz is indeed human.
He admits to having struggled with his workload, working 20 hour days for more than a decade. “I worked long hours, [but] I was able to do so because of the support and understanding of my family.” When discussing his personal life, he stresses the importance of achieving a balance.
Today, as the inaugural chair of the USC Eye Institute, he summarizes his short- and long-term goals as to “help blind people” and “get this product out there, further its access, and help patients.”
Short, sweet, and well said.