Student Innovator at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Aims To Personalize Medicine With Implantable Sensors


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February 27, 2013

Student Innovator at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Aims To Personalize Medicine With Implantable Sensors

Rebecca Wachs Is One of Three Finalists for the $30,000 2013 Lemelson-Rensselaer Student Prize

Rebecca Wachs has invented a new implantable sensor with the ability to wirelessly transmit data from the site of a knee replacement, spinal fusion, or other orthopedic surgery. Simple, robust, and inexpensive to make, her sensor holds the promise of advancing personalized medicine by giving doctors an unprecedented wealth of information about how an individual patient is healing.

Wachs, who in January earned her doctoral degree in biomedical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, is one of three finalists for the 2013 $30,000 Lemelson-Rensselaer Student Prize. A public ceremony announcing this year’s winner will be held at 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday, March 5, in the auditorium of the Rensselaer Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies. For more information on the ceremony visit:

Wachs’ project is titled “Enabling Personalized Medicine Through an Elementary and Robust Implantable Sensor.” Her adviser is Eric Ledet, professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Rensselaer.

Researchers have endeavored since the 1960s to extract information from sensors implanted in the body. Nearly all of the solutions, however, have been hampered by the requirement of complex electronics, antennas, frequent modifications to the implant, or the need for external power sources such as batteries. The devices end up being impractical and too expensive. Because of these limitations, surgeons today usually rely on X-rays or MRIs to monitor the progress of their patient’s recovery following an orthopedic procedure. Most diagnoses therefore rely on subjective observation instead of objective data.

This is significant because more than 500,000 total knee replacements and 400,000 spinal fusion procedures are performed every year in the United States. Overall, musculoskeletal conditions result in 500 million lost work days annually, at an estimated cost of nearly $375 billion.

Wachs’ patent-pending solution to this challenge was to create a simple, practical sensor to provide rich, objective data on which to make diagnoses about surgery sites. She invented a wireless sensor that needs no battery, no external power, and requires no electronics within the body. Instead, the sensor is powered by an external device, which is also used to capture the sensor data.

Measuring only 4 millimeters in diameter and 500 microns thick, the wireless sensors look like small coils of wire and are attached to commonly used orthopedic musculoskeletal implants such as rods, plates, or prostheses. Once in the body as part of the implant, the sensor can monitor and transmit data about the load, strain, pressure, or temperature of the healing surgery site. The sensor is scalable, tunable, and easy to configure so that it may be incorporated into many different types of implantable orthopedic devices.

Additionally, the sensors could prove valuable during the actual surgery procedure to implant the prosthetic device. In real time, surgeons could get objective data to help guide their decisions about the correct sizing and placement of the prosthetic they are implanting in the patient.

Overall, Wachs’ invention could give surgeons the opportunity to make surgical decisions and post-operative diagnoses for individual patients based on objective, personalized, and real-time data. Her sensors are simple and inexpensive to produce, require no external power source, yet are robust and durable. The data produced by these sensors should arm physicians with powerful new information for determining when recovering patients are able to return to work without a risk of further injury.

Growing up, Wachs had a natural talent for inventing and building things. Her first real interest in engineering stemmed from her high school physics class, the teacher of which introduced her to the idea of mechanical engineering. As an undergraduate student studying mechanical engineering, she was fascinated with the role of mechanics in the human body, which inspired her to pursue her master’s and doctoral degrees in biomedical engineering.

When not in the lab or classroom, Wachs likes to play soccer, cook, and entertain friends and family. She is also an avid reader and likes to discuss what she’s reading with fellow members of her book club.

Wachs’ husband, Bobby Wachs, and their dog, Maggie, are cheering for her to win the $30,000 Lemelson-Rensselaer Student Prize. In her hometown of Guilderland, N.Y., Wachs’ father, an accountant, and mother, a nurse, are also rooting for Wachs, as are her two sisters.

Wachs received her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and her master’s degree and doctoral degree in biomedical engineering from Rensselaer. This month, she began working in her role as senior research and development engineer in the sports medicine group at RTI Biologics Inc. in Alachua, Fla.

About the $30,000 Lemelson-Rensselaer Student PrizeThe $30,000 Lemelson-Rensselaer Student Prize is funded through a partnership with the Lemelson-MIT Program, which has awarded the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize to outstanding student inventors at MIT since 1995. 

About The Lemelson-MIT ProgramCelebrating innovation, inspiring youthThe Lemelson-MIT Program celebrates outstanding innovators and inspires young people to pursue creative lives and careers through invention.

Jerome H. Lemelson, one of U.S. history’s most prolific inventors, and his wife, Dorothy, founded the Lemelson-MIT Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1994. It is funded by The Lemelson Foundation and administered by the School of Engineering. The Lemelson Foundation uses the power of invention to improve lives by inspiring and enabling the next generation of inventors and invention-based enterprises to promote economic growth in the United States and social and economic progress for the poor in developing countries.

Read about past winners of the $30,000 Lemelson-Rensselaer Student Prize:

  • Student Innovator Uses Graphene Foam To Detect Subtle Traces of Hazardous Gases and ExplosivesFazel Yavari’s graphene innovation is a new sensor to detect extremely small quantities of hazardous gases
  • Student Innovator Uses Sound Waves, T-Rays for Safer Detection of Bombs and Other Dangerous MaterialsBenjamin Clough’s invention increases distance between first responders and potential threats


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About Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Founded in 1824, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is America’s first technological research university. Rensselaer encompasses five schools, over 30 research centers, more than 140 academic programs including 25 new programs, and a dynamic community made up of over 6,800 students and 104,000 living alumni. Rensselaer faculty and alumni include upwards of 155 National Academy members, six members of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, six National Medal of Technology winners, five National Medal of Science winners, and a Nobel Prize winner in Physics. With nearly 200 years of experience advancing scientific and technological knowledge, Rensselaer remains focused on addressing global challenges with a spirit of ingenuity and collaboration. To learn more, please visit