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February 5, 2017

Will the real George Stetten please stand up?

In 1979, George Stetten wrote a science fiction novel that envisioned a paradise for couch potatoes: Just by activating a virtual reality program, characters in the novel’s futuristic world could see and interact with exotic people, places and things that weren’t really there in front of them.

A decade later, as a reluctant medical student at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Syracuse, Stetten hated sticking needles in patients because he couldn’t see exactly where the needles were going after they’d punctured the skin. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to take blood samples without ever missing the vein? he thought. Wouldn’t it be great to have X-ray eyes?

Flash forward to 1999, when Stetten joined Pitt’s faculty as an assistant professor of bioengineering with a joint appointment at the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute. That also was the year that Stetten got the idea for an invention that transformed his dreams of X-ray vision and virtual travel into reality: the Sonic Flashlight.

The hand-held device uses a translucent mirror to align the visual outer surface of a patient’s skin with a live ultrasound scan of underlying blood vessels, muscle tissue and other internal anatomy.

In effect, it lets doctors see beneath the skin so they can look directly at the patient — rather than having to look away at, say, an ultrasound display screen — for guidance while they do invasive procedures such as catheterizations and needle biopsies.

If it seems unusual that the same man would create such a device and study medicine and become an engineering professor and write science fiction…well, those are just the highlights of Stetten’s Renaissance Man CV.

Stetten, 50, also studied classical piano for a dozen years, although he prefers performing pop music. He plans soon to release his second CD of original songs (vocals, keyboards, guitar, bass and production by George Stetten). See accompanying story.

During the early 1980s, Stetten created the first on-board computer system for the U.S. Navy’s manned deep ocean research vessel, Alvin. Using Stetten’s system, Alvin took the first humans to survey the wreckage of the Titanic.

Later in the ’80s, Stetten created what he dubbed a “radio telemetric egg” to measure temperature ranges beneath nesting birds. Stetten devised the egg — a plastic Easter egg stuffed with temperature and gravity sensors, an antenna and a lithium battery-powered transmitter — to assist staff at New York City’s Bronx Zoo in incubating eggs of the endangered white-naped crane. Not the brightest of creatures, the cranes didn’t recognize Stetten’s egg as a fake. One crane even defended it against a raccoon.

Stetten recalls: “I was a little worried about the egg because it relies on tiny, very high-energy batteries. If they short out, they blow up. I pictured accidentally blowing up a white-naped crane and what kind of headlines that would have made,” he says, with a chuckle. “Luckily, that never happened.”

The radio telemetric egg was named a runner-up for a Discover magazine ecology product award.

During the late 1970s, after earning an engineering degree from Harvard and before starting grad school, Stetten was helping to start up MIT’s Media Lab (a hotbed of electronic music experimentation) when he and a roommate created a touch-sensitive electronic piano keyboard. “The idea, still new at the time, was that the harder you hit a synthesizer’s key the louder it should be, just like the keys on an acoustic piano,” Stetten says.

“My roommate and I built [such a keyboard] and sat on our invention for a year, by which time someone else had gotten the patent on it. We were only about a month late.

“Of course,” he adds, undercutting the importance of his claim, “100 other people also had been working on similar keyboards and they also just missed getting the patent.”

In addition to his engineering degree, Stetten has a master’s in neuroscience from New York University, an M.D. from SUNY-Syracuse and a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from Duke — an impressive alphabet soup of advanced degrees, which Stetten attributes largely to indecision.

“For a long time, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be,” he confesses.

Stetten’s parents, both of them researchers at the National Institutes of Health, had no such doubts: Their son would go to medical school, just like his father and his father’s father.

“Was there pressure on me to become a doctor? A lot, yeah,” Stetten remembers, with a laugh. The problem was, Stetten hated blood and the thought of having to make life-and-death decisions — “usually on insufficient information,” he notes — as doctors must.

Fortunately, while Stetten’s father had earned an M.D., he had gone into research work and had never practiced medicine (“which had caused a big fight between him and his father, who was a practicing surgeon,” Stetten says) so George’s decision to eschew medicine didn’t create too many problems at home.

Instead of medicine, Stetten pursued his fascination with the new field of biomedical engineering, earning his doctorate at Duke. Engineering allowed Stetten “to just follow a thought” to wherever it led, perhaps to some new invention. “You don’t have that luxury with medicine,” he points out.

After five years in Pittsburgh, Stetten says he loves the city and his work here. “It’s such a hot place for medical research,” he says, noting that U.S. News and World Report recently ranked Pitt’s bioengineering department among the top 20 nationally (and in the top 10 among public universities’ bioengineering departments) and that CMU’s computer engineering department, where he also works, has been No. 1 in its field for years.

“It’s a real treat to be able to come up with ideas and work with graduate students and undergraduates, and teach and invent and build stuff,” Stetten says. “Now that I’ve finally gotten research grants, everything seems to be working. I’m planning to stay here — I hope.” Stetten is coming up for tenure this spring.

Meanwhile, his most successful invention, the Sonic Flashlight, seems well on its way to being tested in the operating room.
Stetten and his research team have built five, progressively more sophisticated models of the device. “The latest is ready to test in humans, once we’ve gone through the appropriate protocols,” he says.

The plan is for doctors at UPMC to employ the Sonic Flashlight next year to guide them as they insert catheters through patients’ arm veins and on into their hearts, where the catheters are ideally placed to pump high concentrations of drugs into the bloodstream.

“It’s a procedure involving what’s called a PICC, a peripherally inserted central catheter,” Stetten says. “The Sonic Flashlight should make it easier to get those catheters in, and allow people with less training to do that procedure. Maybe in the future, it won’t have to be performed by a radiologist but could be done by a nurse.”

Doctors who have tried out the Sonic Flashlight say it feels quite natural, according to Stetten. “It’s sure a lot easier on their hand-eye coordination,” he says, than constantly re-focusing from patient to monitor and back again.

Stetten has received two grants from the National Institutes of Health and another from the National Science Foundation to develop the Sonic Flashlight, which has received one patent with another pending. He credits his department chairperson, Harvey S. Borowetz, with turning him from a 90-lb. weakling of grantsmanship into a winner.

“I’ve received seven grants in a row without a rejection, after having gotten 10 straight rejections” for essentially the same proposal ideas, says Stetten. “The difference is that, thanks to Harvey’s coaching, my proposals are better organized and more concise than they used to be.

“The idea is to write more like Newsweek than like Tolstoy. Before, I tended to try to write the Great American Grant.”
With everything else he’s doing, that’s one achievement that Stetten can live without.

—Bruce Steele

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