Device Under Skin Tells Doc You're OK (or Not)

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This miniature electronic device can be implanted under the skin to provide immediate analysis of substances found in blood.
EPFL

Going to the doctor for blood work is never a particularly pleasant experience. Whether it's fear of the needle or a more debilitating disease, most people would rather stay home.

Thanks to a tiny new medical implant, doctors of the future might be just fine with that.

A team of scientists from the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne(EPFL) have developed a miniature electronic device that can be implanted under the skin to provide immediate analysis of substances found in blood.

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Not only can the portable blood-testing device detect up to five proteins and organic acids simultaneously, it can wirelessly transmit the results to a doctor's computer.

Led by EPFL scientists Giovanni de Micheli and Sandro Carrara, the team says the device will allow health care providers to better monitor patients, especially those suffering from chronic illness or undergoing chemotherapy.

Though just over a half-inch long, the implant includes five sensors, a coil for wireless power and small electronics that emit radio waves over a safe frequency. The device's battery patch would be taped outside the patient's body and could be changed without surgery.

"The idea is to shape the final packaging to correspond with a syringe to insert it under the skin's surface," Carrara told Discovery News. "It could be removed just by pulling the tape."

Each sensor is covered with specific enzymes to help target and detect specific substances in the body, such as lactate, glucose and ATP.

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"We have also detected bilirubin, dopamine and other neurotransmitters like glutamate," Carrara said. "The power of this platform is that it provides simultaneous detection of several metabolites at the same moment."

Once the sensors capture data, that information can be wirelessly transmitted from the implant via Bluetooth to the patient's smartphone and results can then be relayed to their doctor. That way, doctors can remotely monitor conditions and fine-tune ministrations for future treatment.

"This implant will enable continuous care, day and night, with little discomfort for the patient," De Micheli stated in an email.

Enzymes, which coat the device, have a limited lifespan. But by mutating them, Carrara says his team was able to create sensors that lasted more than two months, which was enough time for applications to be carried out. As enzymes deteriorate, the device could be easily removed and substituted with another implant with fresh enzymes.

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One of the biggest challenges was creating sensors with enough sensitivity, since working at such a small scale meant sacrificing surface area.

"Losing area means directly losing currents," Carrara said. "Nanobioelectronics were used to increase the sensitivity of the sensor and develop low-noise electronics to give us the ability to have a reliable signal."

The implant could be particularly beneficial to cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. Oncologists typically use blood tests to gauge a patient's tolerance to certain dosages, which can be difficult to evaluate and administer. De Micheli believes this device could provide a more precise and accurate reading of a patient's tolerance.

"In cases of chronic patients or patients that need to be monitored continuously," Carrara said," the doctor can directly receive alerts on his smartphone or iPod."

Carrara adds that the implant offers a link "that can close the telemedicine chain" between doctor and patient. He says it's the world's first device developed small enough to provide a multi-panel platform for monitoring several molecules at the same time.

"The implanted devices on the market now only acquire mechanical or electrical signals," he said. "Other devices on the market today only detect glucose."

The device is still in the prototype phase and has only been tested on animals, however, with further research, the scientists are optimist it could be commercially available within four years.

Research findings were recently published and presented at DATE 13, Europe's largest electronics conference.