Fernando Ivich

Bioengineering, College of Engineering

“We are developing a way to monitor drug treatments for bipolar disorder continuously in vivo, in order to be certain that the medication is working correctly for the patient.”


In most cases when one is prescribed medication, the dosage amount is guided by population averages based on factors such as gender, age and weight, with the assumption being that similar doses should work for physically similar patients. To first year PhD student Fernando Ivich, this practice represents a dangerous gap in pharmacology. “We know that this is not an accurate method – everyone’s body is different,” says Ivich, “What works for one person could be toxic for another.”

A graduate of the University of Arizona with matching bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Biomedical Engineering, Ivich’s research in Northeastern’s Department of Bionegineering aims to reduce that risk, starting with a particularly tricky drug – lithium. Used to good effect for the treatment of bipolar disorder, lithium’s therapeutic dosage range is very close to the dosage level at which it becomes toxic, requiring patients being treated with it to have blood drawn weekly to check the sodium levels of their blood. “When lithium becomes toxic,” Ivich explains, “it reduces the sodium in the blood to potentially fatal levels. With these blood draws only happening once a week at best, this creates a gap for the patient, where they are going days without having their sodium levels monitored.”

To attack this information gap, Ivich is working in the lab of Dr. Mark Niedre and Dr. Heather Clark, helping to develop a fluorescent sensor concealed in a red blood cell membrane which can circulate in a patient’s blood for up to two weeks. “It’s able to circulate for that long because the membrane camouflages the sensor,” he explains, “So your body doesn’t treat it as a foreign substance, but instead thinks of it as a regular cell.”

“You excite the sensor with a red laser, which can penetrate the skin to the blood, triggering the sensor to respond,” Ivich says, “The sensor then translates the light to a measurable electrical current – depending on the sodium levels of the blood, that current will change, giving a quantifiable measurement. Theoretically, this would make it possible to look at your vein externally to check your sodium concentrations in vivo, without having to perform a blood draw all the time.”

While this project is only beginning to enter the animal testing phase, its potential was enough to attract Ivich to Northeastern for his PhD. “Getting to work on projects like this, at the cutting edge of bioengineering, it’s really, really rewarding,” he says. “I see this as proof of concept for something much bigger.”

“The human body is the greatest machine ever built; it can do so much, and I am always thinking about how we can use it to our advantage, to do more.”
Fernando Ivich