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Pictures of the Future
The Magazine for Research and Innovation

Jugend forscht – Portrait Wilko Wilkening

Getting to the Bottom of Things

Today, Wilko Wilkening is working on ultrasound technology for Siemens Healthineers. He was the winner of Germany’s nationwide “Young People in Research” competition in the Chemistry category in 1987.

As a teenager, he activated chemical fluorescence with an electric current. Now he’s working on imaging the heart with ultrasound in less than a tenth of a second. Wilko thinks it’s just as fascinating today as it was then to get to the bottom of things. Siemens is the organizer of Germany’s nationwide “Young People in Research” (“Jugend forscht”) competition in 2017. A portrait of a past winner of “Young People in Research.”

When doctors operate on heart valves, they can automatically determine a valve’s size during the operation using 3D ultrasound imaging. It used to be that doctors had to analyze the valves in 2D sections – which is time-consuming and accuracy depends heavily on a physician’s dexterity with the technology. Today an ultrasound probe from Siemens can acquire seamless 3D images of the heart in real-time and combine them with color-coded Doppler images of the blood flow. Using such images together with Siemens’ eSie Valves analytical software, which generates a 3D model of mitral and aortic valves, enables surgeons to repair or replace with minimally invasive techniques. Wilko was among the many developers who made eSie Valves possible.

Jugend forscht 1987: Wilko Wilkening (right) and Markus Kalkum demonstrate their project on how to lighten up the hydrazide in 3-amino phthalic acid.

“My contribution was limited to the ultrasound probe,” says Wilko. “I defined its features and was responsible for integrating it into the system.” The new probe, named Z6Ms, is a little miracle that’s about the width of a finger, but contains more than 2,000 components for sound conversion and activation when used in conjunction with Siemens’ ACUSON SC2000 ultrasound system. Since not every component can be connected to a cable for signal transmission when the heart is being examined through the esophagus, highly integrated electronic components in the probe take over part of the complex image calculations, measure temperature, and even optimize power consumption. “The system can get a sharp image of a heart in less than a tenth of a second,” Wilko explains. “You can see the blood flow in three dimensions, as though in a film. It’s the fastest ultrasound system on the market today.”

The visualization and quantification of mitral valve flow in real-time enables a more confident assessment of mitral regurgitation severity and reliable monitoring of therapeutic interventions.

A Museum that Sparked an Idea

Wilko works at Siemens Healthineers in Mountain View, in California’s Silicon Valley. “The area’s consistently good weather isn’t the decisive factor for me,” he says, referring to the region’s intellectually stimulating environment. “Driverless cars are on the road here every day and there are lectures by top scientists almost every evening. Thanks to factors like these, I feel very much at home here, because this environment is such a good match for my inclination to tinker with things.”

Thanks in part to one of Wilko Wilkening’s discoveries, Siemens’ ultrasound images of the human heart benefit from high resolution.

Tinkering and fiddling with things was already an avocation of the very young Wilko, though at age 16 he was still devoted to chemistry. His elder brother and younger sister both have doctorates in chemistry. His father, with a doctorate in metallurgy, got the boy equipment for chemical and electronic experiments. And his “Young People in Research” partner from those days is a professor of chemistry today. “I got the idea for our contest entry at the Deutsches Museum in Munich,” Wilko recalls. In the museum’s Chemistry section, visitors could trigger experiments by just pushing a button – including causing dissolved luminol to start phosphorescing with a catalyst. Wilko got to wondering whether it would also work with other media –perhaps even electricity? “And that’s what we did for Young People in Research, we excited luminol to phosphoresce using electrolysis.”

In 1982, Wilko discovered a fascinating experiment at the Deutsches Museum in Munich. The experiment triggered his research project.

“Transmitting Electronic Excitation Energy to 3-Aminophthalic “Hydrazide” was the name of the project that won Wilko and his partner Markus Kalkum a special prize in Chemistry in the 1987 competition. The two won a stay at the Hahn-Meitner Institute in Berlin, where they could recreate their experiments using professional equipment and measure the results with an accuracy they’d never known before. “Even back then, I didn’t like to see questions going unanswered,” Wilkening says.

Where Chemistry, Medicine and Electrical Engineering Meet

But he didn’t stop with luminol and chemistry. “I found that too unpredictable for me,” he grins. “So I decided on electrical engineering”, which is a bit more calculable. While earning his university degrees, he landed in the world of medical ultrasound. An internship at Siemens in Issaquah, Washington, seemed to point the way.

“But after I got my doctorate, I first went to another company and worked on ultrasound flow meters,” he explains. He then came to Siemens because the interfaces between chemistry, medicine, and electrical engineering appealed to him. In Mountain View, he can really cut loose. “I think the combination of theory and experiment is very exciting,” he says. “And what I especially like is that I can get to the bottom of things in my work. I’m never really satisfied until I understand how things interconnect.” A real engineer.

Norbert Aschenbrenner
Picture credits: from top: 2. picture Stiftung Jugend forscht e. V.