Heat Transfer for Health and Healing

Innovative cooling and heating methods that maintain health and speed healing

Although often taken for granted, body temperature strongly affects how our immune system functions and also governs our ability to have quality sleep. Dr. Kenneth Diller, Professor of Biomedical Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin, has identified some of the most powerful and subtle features of our body’s thermoregulation performance and created new and unique devices and methods to access our temperature control center safely and effectively, which can provide protection in life-threatening medical events such as stroke, heart attack and traumatic brain injury. His technology has been further adapted to create a thermally interactive sleeping environment that enables the sleeper to progress through a quality sleep experience, and it may be applied to ensure a safe and simple control of body temperature during surgical procedures.

The human body has a remarkably sophisticated and effective means of regulating its status and condition, and the most effective approach to facilitating healing from injury is to cooperate with how the body works while requiring as little invasive intervention as possible. Standing on this philosophy during the invention and design process, Professor Diller has also discovered that advanced heating and cooling methods can be applied to speed the healing process in tissue that has experienced a traumatic injury, commonly occurring during athletic activities or orthopedic surgery. Special medical devices have been built to carry out these heating and cooling procedures in concert with how the body naturally functions. This is in strong contrast to most alternative thermal treatment methods that use less effective heat transfer procedures and work against the body’s natural responses.

Since Professor Diller’s thermal treatment technologies embody pioneering ideas and procedures, he has filed numerous patents so that these devices and methods can be commercialized and made available to the public for medical use, and the first patents are now beginning to issue. All of these studies have proven to be successful in hundreds of experiments in the university laboratory. As the next step, several clinical trials have either been started or are in advanced planning stages to test technologies on hospital patients and to obtain data to apply for FDA approval. Plus, continuing research must be conducted to push forward the frontiers of fundamental knowledge and discovery even further. The present time is particularly critical for funding to move the technologies forward across the gap between basic discovery research and routine clinical application and commercialization.

Professor Diller’s research team includes undergraduate and graduate students and postdocs. They work in close collaboration with nationally preeminent surgeons who help to guide the accurate formulation of important medical problems that require solution and who oversee clinical trials of new devices and treatment methods.

Current projects in Professor Diller’s lab include:

  • Changing the Body Core Temperature for Medical Therapy: The Diller Lab has discovered that selective thermal stimulation along skin overlying the spinal cord causes an increase in blood flow to the major heat transfer blood vessels of the body, which are located in the hands and feet. Special thermal stimulation devices and mild hand and foot cooling or warming pads operate in coordination to extract or add heat to the body core using natural thermoregulatory pathways. This “Smart Cool” technology, developed into a startup company, cools or warms the core via the natural means of blood flow to hands and feet, and allows the core body temperature to be altered on demand in a gentle manner, with important implications for numerous medical conditions and procedures.
  • Circadian Cycles for Temperature and Sleep: The sleep circadian cycle is subject to inputs from the thermoregulatory circadian cycle. Both an effective sleep onset and quality of overnight sleep are directly dependent on regulation of the central body temperature and the temperature of extremities, especially of the hands and feet. Professor Diller’s technologies allow a sleeper throughout the night to be in feedback control communication with a bed that can regulate the temperature for optimal sleeping. A major side benefit of this technology is a drop in blood pressure overnight which is being documented to reduce the occurrence of circulatory-related diseases of the kidney, heart, and vascular system.
  • Enhanced Tissue Healing: As is often seen in sports therapy, topical cooling of injured tissues is widely practiced informally with ice and gel packs and is prescribed in conjunction with surgical procedures via cooling machines. Although there are clear benefits of cooling, collateral injuries may often occur, sometimes with dreadful results. Professor Diller has invented a new technology that provides a scientifically designed combination of intermittent cooling and heating to eliminate the risk of cold injury and to speed the healing of injured tissues. The devices are designed to be simple to use, safe, and much more convenient than are existing alternatives.


Professor Diller is widely considered to be one of the leading international experts in heat transfer applied to biology and medicine. He has made pioneering contributions in diverse areas such as the frozen preservation of tissues and organs for transplantation, occurrence and treatment of burn injury, design of the next generation space suit, application of heating to treat cancer, and his present work in medical uses of thermoregulation and thermal therapies. He is an innovator in engineering education and is author of a major textbook on Biotransport. He spent nearly 20 years in academic administration, serving as chairman of the Department of Mechanical Engineering and founding chairman of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at UT Austin and also UT MD Anderson Cancer Center and UT Houston Medical School. Since stepping down from administration his major research focus has been on developing the new technologies described in this profile and shepherding them to clinical use. He has published over 300 journal research articles and books.

Professor Diller became a researcher initially as a grad student at MIT because he really enjoyed expanding his thinking and exploring pioneering ideas that had important consequences for people’s health. He was stimulated by working together with other talented and highly motivated colleagues, which continues to remain true as he is a senior level professor working primarily with younger faculty and a cadre of enthusiastic students full of fresh ideas. A major reason that he originally focused on the field of biomedical engineering was that, at the time, his new bride was a nursing student, and she would be able to share an interest in his research. Her interest and involvement continue to this day.

Quite unusually for an engineering professor, Professor Diller not only teaches courses in biomed engineering but also leads a course called Science and the Bible, a university-wide course that utilizes two books every class period: one is a two-inch-thick Study Bible loaded with footnotes and explanations, and the second is a textbook written by a professor at the University of Cambridge that describes the intricacies of the scientific method. During the class time, Professor Diller addresses an array of issues that touch on controversies related to whether science and the Bible can exist in harmony. The discussions that emerge are often rich, robust and enlightening. The ground rules are that: 1.) Everyone has to be genuine in everything they say; and 2.) Everyone has to respect what everybody else says whether or not they agree with it.

Outside of his work, Professor Diller thoroughly enjoys living on a ranch, and doing all the practical work that goes with it. For example, he owns a collection of antique construction vehicles, like his own fire engine, dump truck, and 18 wheeler, and loves driving and working on all of them. He also spends as much time as possible with his family, including seven grandchildren.

For more information, visit http://www.bme.utexas.edu/about-us/faculty-directory/diller

In the News

Research in Bioheat Transfer

Podcast interview recorded at ASME international meeting in Montreal, 11/14.


Max Jakob Award, 2014

for career accomplishments in Heat Transfer

H.R. Lissner Medal, 2002

for career accomplishments in Bioengineering

ASME Heat Transfer Memorial Award, 1994

for career accomplishments in Heat Transfer

John E. Fogarty Senior International Fellow at Cambridge University, UK, 1989

U.S. National Institutes of Health

Alexander von Humboldt Fellow (FRG) at University of Stuttgart, 1983

Elected Fellow:

American Association for the Advancement of Science (2002), Cryobiology Society (2013), Biomedical Engineering Society (2005), American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering (1995), American Society of Mechanical Engineering (1990)


U.S. Patent No. 8,617,230: "Altering Temperature in a Mammalian Body"

Diller, K.R., Hensley, D.W. and Diller, T.T., 2013.

U.S. Patent Appl. 62/020,100: "Cryotherapy Devices and Methods with Alternating Heating and Cooling to Limit Ischemic Injury and to Enhance Wound Healing"

Diller, K.R., Khoshnevis, S., Lee, K.H., Hejl, W.R., 2014.

U.S. Patent Appl. 62/048,528: "A Climate Controlled Bed with Sleeper Feedback"

Diller, K.R., 2014.