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Medical Advances

Stretchable Health Technology

Second Skin Wearables Take Health Care to the Next Level

Everyone has worn a Band-Aid® or two in their lifetime. Now, imagine if a patient with diabetes could measure their glucose levels with a bandage. Or a family on vacation could monitor sun exposure something similar to a sticker. Stretchable health technology is making headlines, thanks to scientists like John Rogers, the Louis Simpson and Kimberly Querrey professor of Materials Science and Engineering, Biomedical Engineering and Neurological Surgery at Northwestern University.

Rogers is internationally recognized for designing and developing electronic devices that can be integrated with the human body and his research spans multiple disciplines. After joining forces with Northwestern Medicine and many of his previous collaborators, Rogers now leads the new Center for Bio-Integrated Electronics, part of the Simpson-Querrey Institute for BioNanotechnology, which is dedicated to continuing his work in stretchable electronics.

What Are Stretchable Electronics?

Stretchable electronics, also called soft electronics, can bend, stretch and twist, easily molding to the shape of another object, wirelessly sending data back to computers or smartphones.

From a medical perspective, this means shaping to the human body and potentially redefining the standard for implantable devices. They represent a new technology to gather energy from organs, wirelessly monitor biological processes and automatically treat medical conditions, such as abnormal heart rhythms. Thin, tattoo-like electronics that mount directly onto the skin (such as sensors of physiological health) and physically flexible electronics that can be implanted into the body (such as post-surgery monitoring devices) and then dissolve away after a pre-defined functional period are just two of the forms they could take.

Rogers, specifically, developed a stretchable form of silicon that can expand and contract like an accordion and, along with the start-up he co-founded, has already begun to bring this technology to the general public.

So, What Can Stretchables Really Do?

Stretchable electronics are already making an impact in every day life. They’re present in hospitals and research labs and you may have even spotted them on some individuals. Here are just a few ways Rogers and his collaborators are already putting stretchable silicon to use:

  • Sun Exposure Monitoring: The startup Rogers cofounded, MC10, worked with L’Oréal on the My UV Patch, which was sold with La Roche-Posay sunscreen and contains miniature electronics that monitor sun exposure in real time. Thinner than a human hair, the heart-shaped bandage sticks on your skin and tracks UV rays for up to five days.
  • Preemie Monitoring: Rogers, along with Amy Paller, MD, and Erin Ibler, MD, scientists at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, are overseeing a clinical trial at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago in which the usual cumbersome machines that monitor the vital signs of premature babies can be replaced with wireless, battery-free sensors.
  • Neuroscience Research: Neuroscientists are using an under-the-skin scalp device with LED lights Rogers invented that uses lights to see how the brain responds to further their research and better understand the brain.
  • Research Data Gathering: MC10 has also developed the BioStamp Research Connect, which measures body motion, muscle activity and heart rate, particularly aimed at helping researchers gather complex psychological data in studies.
  • Physical Rehabilitation: Rogers’ technology has also been used for patches for physical rehabilitation and on neurosurgery patients. Specifically, Rogers studied the use of patches for stroke patients with Richard Lieber, MD, and Arun Jayaraman, MD, physical medicine and rehabilitation professors at Feinberg.
  • Spinal Surgery: Rogers and Michel Kliot, MD, at the time a professor of neurological surgery at Feinberg, collaborated on the use of stretchable electronics in the operating room for measuring peripheral nerve activity in spinal surgeries.

The Future of Healthcare Technology

In addition to the applications Rogers’ technology is currently bringing to life, he and his collaborators are already focused on the next generation of stretchable.

Rogers is also exploring how stretchable electronics could be used to collect and analyze body fluids like sweat, which could be used to monitor electrolytes in athletes and glucose levels in people with diabetes. Developing biodegradable implants, such as sensors that can be inserted after brain surgery to monitor cranial pressure and temperature, is also on the agenda.

Scientists like Rogers are confident stretchable electronics are the future of healthcare research and are committed to exploring new ways the technology can impact and improve society. From a temporary tattoo that can monitor alcohol intake to edible electronics that could monitor gastrointestinal and medication uptake, the potential really is limitless.