Could Medical Devices Be Coming to a Menu Near You?

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have developed a battery that could enable edible medical devices.

September 11, 2013

3 Min Read
Could Medical Devices Be Coming to a Menu Near You?

You’ve heard of Edible Arrangements and even edible underwear, but edible medical devices? If researchers at Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh) have their way, patients could someday swallow the devices that may save their lives.

Chris Bettinger, an assistant professor in the departments of materials sicence and biomedical engineering at Carnegie Mellon, has been working in the field of biodegradeable electronics for medical devices for the past five years. He and his team have created a single-use ingestible battery made of biocompatible materials that can power electronic devices such as sensors and drug-delivery systems. The battery consists of flexible polymer electrodes and a sodium-ion electrochemical cell.

“The key innovation here is that we were able to fabricate this device using materials that are ingested in common diets,” says Bettinger, who will discuss edible electronics September 27, 2013, in San Diego at the Design of Implantable Devices Conference.

Their ultimate goal is to use the battery to power medical devices that can be encapsulated in a pill form, so patients can ingest them to implant the devices in their bodies. The devices would be programmed to deploy in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract or small intestine before ultimately being excreted from the body.

“It’s just like food,” Bettinger says. “We estimate that the device itself will stay within the patient’s GI system for 18–24 hours. However, the functional lifetime of the device will be on the order of one hour or so.”

Edible medical devices could offer a number of benefits over traditional medical implants. For starters, edible devices don’t need to be sterilized, and that could speed regulatory approval, Bettinger says. “Also, the eventual excretion of these devices in the feces provides a little more latitude in terms of materials that we can use compared to traditional implants,” he adds.

Still, challenges remain.

“We have not yet demonstrated any specific applications in the context of treating disease,” Bettinger says. “However, we are working on that right now.”

Because the device is designed to be used only once, it will also need to be manufactured at low cost. “The idea is to make them very cheap, so that ingesting one device per day would be economically feasible,” Bettinger says.

Despite these hurdles, Bettinger and his team believe edible medical devices hold promise.

“We think there is a big future in edible devices because most patients are comfortable with swallowing a pill,” he says. “The key is to make the materials safe and biocompatible, which we have done. We feel that this will reduce any risk of side effects upon ingestion, and eventual passing of the device through the GI tract.”

Edible medical devices could be used to measure biomarkers, monitor gastric function, deliver current to stimulate tissues, or help target drug delivery.

“The battery that we have developed is just the beginning,” Bettinger says. “Once you have the battery technology down, which we do, this opens up a lot of different applications in actively powered edible electronics.”

Jamie Hartford, managing editor, MD+DI
[email protected]

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