Decoding physical patterns of our bodies via conformable devices

Interview with MIT’s Canan Dagdeviren

By Conn Hastings

Nature is full of physical patterns – from our breathing and the heart beating in our chests to the tides that lap the shore. The Conformable Decoders group at MIT believe that if such patterns can be “decoded,” they can provide a rich seam of information that can help in designing a variety of devices that can better integrate with and affect natural systems, such as the human body.

The group members have numerous ongoing projects that reflect this ethos. A major focus is on tiny electromechanical systems which can influence and explore the human body, some of which have been covered by Medgadget previously. For instance, a material that can harvest power from the movement of internal organs in the body has led to a swallowable flexible sensor that adheres to the stomach wall and can transmit information about stomach peristalsis.

Other projects include an implantable miniaturized neural drug delivery system, which can be controlled remotely and deliver tiny amounts of drugs to highly specific locations within the brain.

See a video about the device below:

In fact, the group has recently authored a review in the journal Advanced Materials, which covers current developments in neuroimplantable devices. The review deals with barriers to the commercialization and clinical use of such devices, and proposes strategies to help streamline this process.

Medgadget caught up with Professor Canan Dagdeviren, Director of the Conformable Decoders group, to discuss her team’s ongoing work.

Conn Hastings, MedgadgetHow did you get interested and involved in this area?

Canan DagdevirenI have been always interested in science. When I was a little kid, I wanted to see atoms. To do so, I was smashing stones in my hometown in Turkey. My father explained to me that we couldn’t see atoms with our naked eyes, but needed an electron microscope to do so. A few years later, my dad handed me a book about Marie and Pierre Curie, and that book changed my life profoundly. In the book, Pierre Curie demonstrated that an electric potential was generated when crystals were compressed, and later that the reverse was true, that crystals could change form when an electric field was applied to them. Pierre Curie had discovered piezoelectricity (electricity resulting from compression or pressure) in 1880, and I, reading about piezoelectricity, had discovered my life’s passion. In my research group, we develop piezoelectric-based biomedical devices to decode the magic of the human body’s physical patterns.

MedgadgetPlease give us an overview of the ethos of the Conformable Decoders group.

Canan DagdevirenOur is vision is to convert the patterns of nature and the human body into beneficial signals and energy. We believe that we live in an ocean of physical patterns: heartbeats, respiration, muscle movements, neural activity, tidal waves, airflow, ambient humidity, temperature change. These patterns contain information–coded messages–that need to be excavated, refined, and defined; to do so, we need sophisticated interfaces to effectively access and evaluate such information. The Conformable Decoders group explores novel materials, device designs, and fabrication strategies to create micro- and nanoscale electromechanical systems with mechanically adaptive features, which allow intimate integration with the objects of interest. These systems enable us to collect and convert essential patterns into beneficial forms in order to gain insights into our world, and enhance interactions with nature and each other. Our long-term mission is to shape the minds of young people who will drive the future. They must be logically brave and firmly fair; they must speak kindly, think deeply, live simply, and generously love their science; and they should seek to design economically feasible and socially desirable futures for all. Our short-term mission is to have a vigorously beating heart to pursue our dream projects every single day.

MedgadgetPlease give us an overview of the miniaturized neural drug delivery system developed by the group.

Canan DagdevirenWe aimed to bridge the gap between cutting-edge neuroscience research and novel engineered devices by developing a multi-functional neural system capable of exploring—and eventually treating—Parkinson’s disease. This multi-functionality makes it a powerful tool to modulate specific neural pathways in animal models.

The biocompatible, remotely controllable Miniaturized Neural Drug delivery System, called MiNDS, permits dynamic neural adjustment with pinpoint spatial resolution and cell-type specificity. With dual chemical-delivery channels and an electrode embedded in a stainless-steel needle carrier, microfabricated MiNDS can chemically modulate local neuronal activity and related behavioral changes in animal subjects while simultaneously recording neural activity to enable feedback control. In this way, it becomes possible to decrease both systemic toxicity and therapy time.

MedgadgetWhat are the major hurdles to approval and clinical use of neuroimplantable devices?

Canan DagdevirenThe main obstacle at this point is that most early design decisions for neuroimplantable devices are made without considering the downstream effects of those decisions on FDA approval and clinical use. Most of the time, researchers try to create a device that is novel in some way. However, any new materials, form factors, or implantation techniques must be thoroughly evaluated by the FDA before clinical use can be approved.

MedgadgetWhat advice would you give to help increase the adoption, approval, and use of such technologies?

Canan Dagdeviren: At this moment there exists a gap between researchers and the FDA, which makes the downstream approval process quite lengthy. If researchers would like to design a new concept for a neuroimplantable device, they could achieve accelerated clinical approval by using materials, form factors, and implantation strategies for which there exists an FDA precedent, i.e. they have already been approved for clinical use in another medical device, not necessarily intended for the brain. For example, the Stentrode(TM) conducts ECoG readings from cerebral vasculature using FDA precedents for materials (platinum, tungsten, nitinol), form factor (stent), and implantation strategy (angiography). By reimagining long-approved medical tools and techniques for declogging arteries into a platform for reading neuronal signals, the Stentrode(TM) team achieved remarkably fast FDA approval. In order to bridge this gap and accelerate the clinical approval of neuroimplantable devices, especially ones that necessitate the use of new materials, form factors, or implantation strategies, we further suggest that researchers begin discussions with the FDA early on in their design process, so that devices can be streamlined for biocompatibility, mechanical robustness, and clinical use. Just like the Bosphorus Bridge in my home country connects two separate continents, we hope that our review paper can help guide and inspire researchers to connect with the FDA, enabling accelerated creation of clinically approved neuroimplantable devices, and eventually, a better world for all.

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