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As an engineering professor at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, Richard P. Vinci has run plenty of experiments. He specializes in figuring out what makes materials break, everything from computer chips to microneedles that deliver medicine.

But now the 51-year-old graduate of MIT and Stanford University is the subject of a study himself, one he hopes might save, or at least extend, his life. Vinci, a Reading, Mass., native, was diagnosed 18 months ago with ALS, the deadly disease that ravages the nervous system and gradually robs patients of the ability to speak, eat, and, finally, breathe.

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