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Wave of New Research Blurs the Line Between Biology and Electronics

October 24, 2023 by Jake Hertz

Receiving more than a billion dollars of investment from government and industry, bioelectronics researchers are converging neuroscience, electronics, materials science, molecular medicine, and biomedical engineering.

While bioelectronics (the fusion of biological sciences and engineering) is not a new concept, recent advancements have propelled this interdisciplinary field. From smart pills that monitor gut health to implants that act as living pharmacies, researchers are converging these fields to progress therapeutic and diagnostic healthcare treatments. 

This article will explore four bioelectronics studies from MIT, Northwestern University, Tufts University, and TU Chemnitz to shed light on the benefits and prospects of this burgeoning field.

 

MIT Introduces Smart Pill for Bowel Diseases

In partnership with Boston University and other research institutions, MIT has developed a smart pill designed to diagnose and treat bowel diseases. 

 

A team of researchers developed a smart pill to diagnose bowel diseases

A team of researchers developed a smart pill to diagnose bowel diseases. Image used courtesy of MIT
 

A major success of the research was the pill’s miniaturization to approximately one-sixth the size of earlier prototypes. The pill itself combines engineered bacteria with microelectronics and a compact battery. When ingested, the engineered bacteria within the pill detects specific molecules like nitric oxide, which are indicative of bowel conditions such as Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis. Upon detection, these bacteria produce light as a response. The pill's microelectronics then convert this light into a wireless signal, which is transmitted in real-time to a smartphone. The real-time data transmission allows for immediate intervention, opening doors for more effective and timely treatments.

This innovative approach offers a non-invasive alternative to traditional diagnostic methods like colonoscopies. Moreover, it can detect short-lived biomarkers that are often missed by existing diagnostic techniques. 

 

Northwestern Rethinks Bioelectronic Implants

Northwestern University is at the forefront of other bioelectronic research with a new implantable device that acts as a "living pharmacy." 

 

The living pharmacy prototype

The living pharmacy prototype. Image used courtesy of Northwestern University
 

The implant contains living engineered cells that can synthesize and release peptides when activated by a light trigger. The device controls the body's circadian clock to help treat sleep disorders. With the device, individuals may eliminate the need for external drugs, injections, or other forms of medication administration. 

According to the researchers, the living pharmacy has wide-ranging implications for treating various health conditions, including metabolic diseases like diabetes and even various forms of cancer. 

 

Tufts Devises Hybrid Transistors With Silk Fibroin

Tufts University recently developed hybrid transistors that use silk fibroin, a structural protein of silk fibers, as the gate-insulating material. 

 

A breath sensor device made using silicon-silk transistors

A breath sensor device made of silicon-silk transistors. Image used courtesy of Tufts University
 

The researchers demonstrated this bio-hybrid technology in a highly sensitive and ultrafast breath sensor. The silk fibroin layer in the transistors can be chemically modified to detect a range of factors, from changes in humidity to specific gases like carbon dioxide. This device may one day help to diagnose cardiovascular and pulmonary diseases. The technology could also be extended to monitor levels of oxygenation and glucose in blood plasma. 

The use of silk fibroin not only adds a biological component to the electronic device but also illustrates a new means of developing environmentally friendly electronics.

 

TU Chemnitz Makes Self-Assembling Modules

The Chemnitz University of Technology (TU Chemnitz) has developed microelectronic modules dubbed SMARTLETs that can self-assemble into complex artificial organisms. 

 

SMARTLET

A SMARTLET is a self-folding microelectronic module. Image used courtesy of TU Chemnitz
 

At its core, the technology aims to bring the self-organizing principles of biological cells into the world of electronics. Each SMARTLET module is equipped with a tiny silicon chip that can store a wealth of information, including complex functions and even the "recipes" for their own fabrication. This is akin to how biological cells carry DNA encoded for various proteins and functions.

While traditional electronic devices are often difficult to recycle and can be environmentally damaging, SMARTLETs are intrinsically sustainable, the researchers claim. These devices can self-sort for recycling, meaning that the modules can disassemble themselves into component parts that can be easily recycled. 

The modules can also communicate with each other, forming complex systems that can perform tasks ranging from sensing to power harvesting. They can even correct their own errors, much like how cells in an organism can repair themselves. This self-correcting, self-assembling nature of SMARTLETs opens the door for highly resilient and adaptive systems.

 

Bioelectronics Gains Popularity

According to a 2019 article on the rise of bioelectric medicine, hundreds of clinical trials are currently underway to investigate how electronic devices can restore healthy patterns of electrical impulses in the human body. These devices, like the ones from MIT, Northwestern, Tufts, and TU Chemnitz, adjust how neurons fire and, consequently, change the concentrations of neurotransmitters traveling through dysfunctional neural circuits.

Healthcare systems and patients are increasingly turning to such bioelectronic devices because they offer true precision medicine without the side effects of pharmaceutical solutions and the risks of invasive medical procedures.