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Brain Storm

Will these breakthroughs take place in Oregon? Advocates for a regional “bioscience hub” have long heralded the coming of a new era for the industry. But skeptics like Portland economist Joe Cortright have been quick to remind them that things aren’t moving as swiftly or as smoothly as they might have hoped. (See “Knight Cancer Challenge No Bioscience Dream,” May 2015.)

Perhaps we’ve just been looking for the wrong thing, boosters counter. “We aren’t trying to be Boston, San Francisco or San Diego,” says Matt Smits, who leads strategic programs at Lake Oswego’s MicroSystems Engineering, and serves as chair of the Board of Directors for the Oregon Bioscience Association. “But we can be very successful in more specific areas of bioscience.”

Meaningful advancements in Deep Brain Stimulation, especially the advances in smart technology, call for the software development expertise, hardware-manufacturing capabilities and research background in neuroscience that Oregon has in spades.

Smits notes Oregon’s already healthy medical device community, especially in advanced manufacturing, with companies like Lake Oswego’s Biotronik and MSEI leading the pack. “If nobody runs with it, it’s not going to happen,” he says, “but we have an opportunity here to play our strengths — which, in bioscience, include advanced manufacturing, microtechnology, digital health, big data and computational diagnostics for precision medicine.”

Key industry players are turning their attention back to the area too. The biotech firm Genentech recently announced a $125 million expansion to its production facility in Hillsboro, and medical device maker Welch Allyn celebrated the grand opening of a 34,000-square-foot Development & Technology Center in Beaverton.

CereMod lies at the intersection of these and other developments. The startup received a grant from Oregon Clinical & Translational Research Institute (OCTRI), OHSU’s NIH-funded biomedical accelerator; it has also applied for a larger NIH Phase I Small Business Technology Transfer grant.

“We review these proposals scientifically, to see if they hold water,” explains David Ellison, OCTRI’s director. Burchiel’s project did, and if their next, much larger,  grant application is successful, CereMod should receive funding beginning January 2016.

To be sure, there is no $1 billion OHSU “brain challenge." But the university  has “come into [its] own” in the last few years, Burchiel says. “We’ve seen not just a re-orienting, but a complete reengineering of our goals, including a commitment to tech transfer and business development.”

Burchiel recalls his first DBS surgery in 1990. “It’s commonplace now. But in those days, my patient was the only one outside of France we had as an example — people were pretty stunned about what it could do.”

Now, if he has his way, one of medicine’s most effective treatment options, for some of its most devastating conditions, is about to jump ahead again — catching up with the other technological innovations that have far outpaced it in the meantime.

Emblematic of the enormous changes taking place at the intersection of brain science and electronic medicine, CereMod is also a uniquely Oregon creation, the swan song of a man whose career mirrors the progress and aspirations of the institution and the state in which he works — and a validation, perhaps, that slow and steady can win the race.

“We’re still learning how the brain works,” Burchiel says. “It’s not unfathomable, but it’s complicated.”

Next page: DIY Brain Science

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