The Future of Medicine: Muscle-Powered Pacemaker

piezoelectric-pacemakerOver the past few decades, cardiac pacemakers have improved to the point that they have become a commonplace medical implant that have helped improve or save the lives of millions around the world. Unfortunately, the battery technology that is used to power these devices has not kept pace. Every seven years they need to be replaced, a process which requires further surgery.

To address this problem, a group of researchers from Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) has developed a cardiac pacemaker that is powered by harnessing energy from the body’s own muscles. The research team, headed by Professor Keon Jae Lee of KAIST and Professor Boyoung Joung, M.D. at Severance Hospital of Yonsei University, has created a flexible piezoelectric nanogenerator can keep a pacemaker running almost indefinitely.

piezoelectric_nanogeneratorTo test the device, Lee, Joung and their research team implanted the pacemaker into a live rat and watched as it produced electrical energy using nothing but small body movements. Based on earlier experiments with piezoelectric generator technology used by KAIST to produce a low-cost, large area version, the team created their new high-performance flexible nanogenerator from a thin film semiconductor material.

In this case, lead magnesium niobate-lead titanate (PMN-PT) was used rather than the graphene oxide and carbon nanotubes of previous versions. As a result, the new device was able to harvest up to 8.2 V and 0.22 mA of electrical energy as a result of small flexing motions of the nanogenerator. This voltage was sufficient enough to stimulate the rat’s heart directly.

pacemaker3The direct benefit of this experimental technology could be in the production and use of self-powered flexible energy generators that could increase the life of cardiac pacemakers, reduce the risks associated with repeated surgeries to replace pacemaker batteries, and even provide a way to power other implanted medical monitoring devices. As Professor Keon Jae Lee explains:

For clinical purposes, the current achievement will benefit the development of self-powered cardiac pacemakers as well as prevent heart attacks via the real-time diagnosis of heart arrhythmia. In addition, the flexible piezoelectric nanogenerator could also be utilized as an electrical source for various implantable medical devices.

Other self-powering experimental technologies for cardiac pacemakers have sought to provide energy from the beating of the heart itself, or from external sources, such as in light-controlled non-viral optogenetics.But the KAIST pacemaker appears to be the first practical version to demonstrate real promise in living laboratory animals and, with any luck, human patients in the not-too-distant future.

heart_patchesAnd while this does represent a major step forward in the field of piezoelectrics – a technology that could power everything from personal devices to entire communities by harnessing kinetic energy – it is also a boon for non-invasive medicine and energy self-sufficiency.

And be sure to check out this video of the pacemaker at work, courtesy of KAIST and the Severance Hospital of Yonsei University:


Sources: gizmag.com, circep.ahajournals.org, kaist.edu

The Future is Here: “Spiber” Silk

spider-silkFor years, scientists and researchers have been looking for a way to reproduce the strength of spider silk in the form of a synthetic material. As an organic material, spider silk is tougher than kevlar, strong as steel, lighter than carbon fiber, and can be stretched 40 percent beyond its original length without breaking. Any material that can boast the same characteristics and be massed produced would be worth its weight in gold!

Recently, a Japanese startup named Spiber has announced that it has found a way to produce the silk synthetically. Over the next two years, they intend to step up mass production and created everything from surgical materials and auto arts to bulletproof vests. And thanks to recent developments in nanoelectronics, its usages could also include soluble electronic implants, artificial blood levels and ligaments, and even antibacterial sutures.

spiber-synthetic-spider-silkSpider silk’s amazing properties are due to a protein named fibroin. In nature, proteins act as natural catalyst for most chemical reactions inside a cell and help bind cells together into tissues. Naturally, the process for creating a complex sequence of aminoacids that make up fibroin are very hard to reproduce inside a lab. Hence why scientists have been turning to genetic engineering in recent years to make it happen.

In Spiber’s case, this consisted of decoding the gene responsible for the production of fibroin in spiders and then bioengineering bacteria with recombinant DNA to produce the protein, which they then spin into their artificial silk. Using their new process, they claim to be able to engineer a new type of silk in as little as 10 days, and have already created 250 prototypes with characteristics to suit specific applications.

SpiderSilkModelNatureThey begin this process by tweaking the aminoacid sequences and gene arrangements using computer models to create artificial proteins that seek to maximize strength, flexibility and thermal stability in the final product. Then, they synthesize a fibroin-producing gene modified to produce that specific molecule.

Microbe cultures are then modified with the fibroin gene to produce the candidate molecule, which is turned into a fine powder and then spun. These bacteria feed on sugar, salt and other micronutrients and can reproduce in just 20 minutes. In fact, a single gram of the protein produces about 5.6 miles (9 km) of artificial silk.

spiber_qmonosAs part of the patent process, Spiber has named the artificial protein derived from fibroin QMONOS, from the Japanese word for spider. The substance can be turned into fiber, film, gel, sponge, powder, and nanofiber form, giving it the ability to suit a number of different applications – everything from clothing and manufacturing to nanomedicine.

Spibers says it is building a trial manufacturing research plant, aiming to produce 100 kg (220 lb) of QMONOS fiber per month by November. The pilot plant will be ready by 2015, by which time the company aims to produce 10 metric tons (22,000 lb) of silk per year.

spiber_dressAt the recent TedX talk in Tokyo, company founder Kazuhide Sekiyama unveiled Spiber’s new process by showcasing a dress made of their synthetic silk. It’s shiny blue sheen was quite dazzling and looks admittedly futuristic. Still, company spokesperson Shinya Murata admitted that it was made strictly for show and nobody tried it on.

Murata also suggested that their specialized slik could be valuable in moving toward a post-fossil-fuel future:

We use no petroleum in the production process of Qmonos. But, we know that we need to think about the use of petroleum to produce nutrient source for bacteria, electric power, etc…

Overall, Sekyama lauded the material’s strength and flexibility before the TedX audience, and claimed it could revolutionize everything from wind turbines to medical devices. All that’s needed is some more time to further manipulate the amino acid sequence to create an even lighter, stronger product. Given the expanding use for silks and its impeccable applicability, I’d say he’s correct in that belief.

In the meantime, check out the video from the TedX talk:


Sources:
gizmag.com, fastcoexist.com

The Future is Here: The Smart Bandage!

electronic_skin_patchWith recent advances being made in flexible electronics, researchers are finding more and more ways to adapt medical devices to the human body. These include smart tattoos, stretchable patches for organs, and even implants. But what of band-aids? Aren’t they about due for an upgrade? Well as it happens, a team of chemical engineering at Northeastern University are working towards just that.

Led by associate professor Ed Goluch, the team is working towards the development of a “smart bandage” that will not only dress wounds, but can monitor infections and alert patients to their existence. Based around an electrochemical sensor that is capable of detecting Pseudomonas aerug­i­nosa – a common bacteria that can kill if untreated – this bandage could very prove to be the next big step in first aid.

smart_bandaidAccording to Goluch, the idea came to him while he was studying how different bacterial cells behave individually and he and his colleagues began speaking about building other types of sensors:

I was designing sensors to be able to track individual cells, measure how they produce different toxins and compounds at the single-cell level and see how they change from one cell to another and what makes one cell more resistant to an antibiotic.

Naturally, addition research is still needed so that smart band-aids of this kind would be able to detect other forms of infections. And Goluch and his colleagues are quite confident, claiming that they are adapting their device to be able to detect the specific molecules emitted by Staphylococcal – the bacteria responsible for staph infections.

???????????????????????????????So far, Goluch and his team have tested the system with bacteria cultures and sensors. The next step, which he hopes to begin fairly soon, will involve humans and animals testing. The professor isn’t sure exactly how much the sensor would cost when commercialized, but he believes “it’s simple enough that you’d be able to integrate it in a large volume fairly cheap.”

At this rate, I can foresee a future where all first-aid devices are small patches that are capable of gathering data on your wounds, checking your vitals, and communicating all this information directly to your PDA or tablet, your doctor, or possibly your stretchable brain implant. I tell ya, it’s coming, so keep your apps up to date!

Source: factcoexist.com

 

The Future is Here: Batteries for Stretchable Implants

Stretchable-battery1One of the newest and greatest developments in medical technology of late has been the creation of electronics that can stretch and flex. Increasingly, scientists are developing flexible electronics like video displays and solar panels that could make their way into clothing or even bodies. But of course, some challenges remain, specifically in how to power these devices.

Thus far, researchers have been able to develop batteries that are thin and bendable, flexibility has proven more of a challenge. In addition, no stretchable batteries have thus far offered rechargeability with high the kind of storage capacity that one might expect from the lithium-ion technology now powering many smartphones, tablets, laptops and other mobile devices.

flexbatteryHowever, that may be changing thanks to two research scientists – Yonggang Huang from Northwestern University and John A. Rogers University of Illinois. Together, they have unveiled a rechargeable lithium-ion battery that can be stretched, twisted and bended, and is still capable of powering electronics. What’s more, the power and voltage of this battery are similar to a conventional lithium-ion battery and can be used anywhere, including the inside of the human body.

Whereas previous batteries of its type had a hard time stretching up to 100 percent of their original size, this new design is capable of stretching up to 300 percent. Huang and Rogers have indicated that this will make it ideal for powering implantable electronics that are designed for monitoring brain waves or heart activity. What’s more, it can be recharged wirelessly and has been tested up to 20 cycles of recharging with little loss in capacity.

Stretchable-batteryFor their stretchable electronic circuits, the two developed an array of tiny circuit elements connected by metal wire “pop-up bridges.” Typically, this approach works for circuits but not for a stretchable battery, where components must be packed tightly to produce a powerful enough current. Huang’s design solution is to use metal wire interconnects that are long, wavy lines, filling the small space between battery components.

In a paper published on Feb. 26, 2013 in the online journal Nature Communications, Huang described the process of creating their new design:

“We start with a lot of battery components side by side in a very small space, and we connect them with tightly packed, long wavy lines. These wires provide the flexibility. When we stretch the battery, the wavy interconnecting lines unfurl, much like yarn unspooling. And we can stretch the device a great deal and still have a working battery.”

No telling when the first stretchable electronic implant will be available for commercial use, but now that we have the battery issue worked out, its only a matter of time before hospitals and patient care services are placing them in patients to monitor their health and vitals. Combined with the latest in personal computing and wireless technology, I also imagine everyone will be able to keep a database of their health which they will share with their doctor’s office.

And be sure to check out the video of the new battery in action:

Source: neurogadget.com

The Future is Here: The Health Monitoring Patch

In recent years, there have been quite a few exciting developments in the field of medicine, which have included such things as medical implants which can deliver drugs, and even tiny medimachines which can navigate the human bloodstream. But as it turns out, flexible skin-mounted electronic patches might also be the way of the future.

Much like a temporary tattoo, these devices will be slapped on a patient’s skin and be able to monitor their vitals and attend to their medical needs remotely, sending information to either a portable computer, server, or even their doctor’s office. Combined with a specialized implant that delivers drugs, we could be looking at a future where truly hands-free medical technology is available.

Such a concept was unveiled a little over a year ago at the University of Illinois, where researchers were working to develop what they called the “smart skin” patch. Paper thin, flexible, and virtually transparent, the device platform includes electronic components, medical diagnostics, communications, and human-machine interfacing on a patch so thin and durable it can be mounted to skin much like a temporary tattoo.

According to John A. Rogers, an engineering professor at Illinois University, his team “threw everything in our bag of tricks onto that platform”, including LEDs, transistors, wireless antennas, sensors, and conductive coils and solar cells, just to demonstrate that it could work. The current design features such as EEG and EMG sensors that track nerves and muscles, something that tends to be limited to a lab given the number of electrodes and wires involved. And the patch itself, mounted on a thin sheet of water-soluble plastic before being laminated to skin with water, can be applied not only like a temporary tattoo, but even on top of a temporary tattoo to help conceal it.

But the real accomplishment here, according to engineering professor Yonghang Huang, whose group was charged with mechanics and materials questions, is the blurring of electronics and biology. “All established forms of electronics are hard, rigid,” he said. “Biology is soft, elastic. It’s two different worlds. This is a way to truly integrate them.” The next step for Rogers and his team is commercialization, which they are already trying to do through his own device company, mc10. The researchers hope to soon add Wi-Fi capability in subsequent models, giving it the ability to communicate with remote servers and computers.

Naturally, the issue of privacy is a concern. If a patient’s medical information is being broadcast by a remote device, will it therefore be obtainable by hackers or third parties who might be interested? And if your medical information is being broadcast directly to a doctor’s office, might this be a potential basis for “Big Brother” bio-monitoring. But like with all medical technology, these devices won’t be available to patients without prior consent, in an attempt to ensure patient rights.

And for people who are suffering from life-threatening or degenerative conditions, it could mean the difference between life and death. Just think of it, terminally-ill patients, seniors or individuals with severe allergies are given this patch. The moment they begin to have a reaction, heart attack, or some other brush with death, EMT’s are notified without the need for calling 911.

But of course, the technology is still in it’s infancy and we can expect any such issues to be debated as it nears completion. In the meantime, it is exciting news just to see how far and fast the field of biotechnology has come in recent years!

Source: news.cnet.com

The Future is Here: Electronics that Dissolve

electronicsIt is no secret that research into nanotechnology is bearing fruit these days. Back in February, both Standford and MIT unveiled implantable devices which would be capable of delivering drugs directly into the human blood stream and detecting health problems. However, despite all the progress being made in terms of nano-miniaturization, there are still numerous barriers which need to be overcome.

For example, having microelectronics in the body, while initially beneficial, might prove problematic with time. What’s to happen when they are finished their jobs, become obsolete, or simply stop working after awhile? As anyone who’s ever owned a computer, PDA, mobile device or laptop can tell you, the stuff breaks! And if it does happen to live past its warranty, chances are it will be obsolete in six months… tops!

Such machines need a way to be removed, but given their size (o.oooooooo1 meters), that’s not exactly practical. And even if it were, there’s the question of disposal. Once commercially viable, there are likely to be billions of nanomachines in circulation. Even at their miniscule scale, such machinery could pose environmental hazards, especially if its likely to malfunction. Ever heard of Grey Goo? Well that’s a scenario that researchers have to consider.

Luckily, researchers at the University of Illinois have come up with a possible solution: electronics that dissolve! Composed of silicon, magnesium, magnesium oxide and contained within a protective layer of silk, these “transient electronics” are built to melt away just as soon as their tasks are complete.

In the process, they will reduce or remove the need to pass or surgically remove medical implants. Using rats as test subject, the researchers built their implants out of extremely thin sheets of silicon called nanomembranes to get the electronics to dissolve in hours or days instead of years.

Of course, the medical applications are clear. Already, electronics are being tailor made for the delivery of drugs, sensors implanted in internal organs to monitor of problems, and temperature monitors created to safeguard against infection and disease. Combined with external sensors, doctors would be able to do a full medical workup within seconds, and much of the guess work involving symptoms and patient history could be eliminated. Exploratory surgery could also become a thing of the past, since doctors would be able to use internal sensors to diagnose unexplained problems.

The researchers also used silk collected from silkworm cocoons to control the speed of disintegration. This is part of a growing field of electrical engineering that seeks to create biodegradable microchips and other electronics, in part for the sake of implantation but also to ensure the elimination of computer waste.

Such waste, which includes disposable cell phones, cameras, and computers, currently accounts for 50 million tons of waste a year. Sixty percent of that is produced in the US, but could rise by as much as 500 percent over the next decade in developing nations such as India and China. Designing these types of components now could ensure the aversion of a possible ecological disaster.

Source: news.cnet.com