By David Drucker

Researchers are building a computerized model that could inform new, highly targeted, and less painful treatments for people with lower urinary tract conditions.

With support from a $3 million, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health, Zachary Danziger, associate professor of biomedical engineering in the FIU College of Engineering and Computing, and his colleagues will use the model to investigate how the nervous system and urinary tract are connected.

They want to understand how electric stimulation of certain specific nerves could help people struggling with underactive bladders — one of the most common lower urinary tract problems without many treatment options — caused by different factors, such as aging, neurological disorders, Parkinson’s disease and more.

“We are looking to come up with a theory that says, ‘If you do this to the nervous system around the bladder, then this will happen in the bladder,’” said Danziger, principal investigator of the grant at the College of Engineering and Computing. The nervous system controls many functions in the body, including the urinary tract.

Controlling those nerves with electrical pulses could theoretically restore proper bladder function. The challenge is that researchers must pinpoint the correct nerve to make it work. The nervous system is highly complex, and an electrical signal to the wrong nerve could have unintended consequences, like causing a random twitch, raising blood pressure or creating pain.

There are not many therapies available on the market for urinary tract issues today, said Danziger, an expert in this area of biomedical engineering.

“For people with underactive bladder where urine does not completely evacuate, the only current option for relief is to insert a catheter, which can be quite uncomfortable,” Danziger said.

The scientists will create a digital twin of the urinary tract to create the framework. This completely computerized model of the bladder and its surrounding parts will help scientists focus costly experimental efforts.

“You can’t do anything you want to a human for the sake of scientific progress. It’s not ethical. For this reason, these digital twins of the body become essential,” said Deniz Erdogmus, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Northeastern University and a member of the interdisciplinary team of researchers.

The research will come down to a heavy dose of interdisciplinary work. In the urinary tract system, some things can be explicitly defined by math, such as how much liquid goes into the bladder and how much goes out. However, some aspects are still unknown, especially concerning the urinary tract’s neural controls. Here, artificial intelligence and machine learning will be used to connect the dots.

“When addressing some of the challenges in this research, we’ve had to go back to the origins of the theories in computer science and mathematics to make sure that they are consistent with each other,” said Giovanna Guidoboni, a professor of math, electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Missouri and a
member of the research team. “In this way, we are doing more than studying the urinary tract system.”

It’s an ambitious approach that could have implications for how the human body is studied.

The research team expects to have new therapeutic predictions based on their theory and computational models within three to four years. In future work, the researchers will need to validate those predictions by conducting tests. The team of researchers includes Danziger, Guidoboni, Erdogmus as well as assistant research professors Sumientra Rampersad and Tales Imbiriba from Northeastern University, John Yin, professor of chemical and biological engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Elie Alhajjar at the United States Military Academy