Why you should care
Because these new, tattoo-like electronics may be able to do everything from monitor heart rate and hydration levels to repair damaged heart tissue.
Fitness buffs are going gaga for gadgets like the Fitbit Flex and Jawbone UP — for now. Although the stylish rubber bracelets can monitor heart rate, sleep patterns and other vital signs, and even display them on a smartphone, John Rogers thinks wearable health can do better.
Today’s often clunky self-health trackers are “just hanging there,” said Rogers, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. As a result, they only measure a handful of biological functions. “We want to go for more sophisticated, clinical quality measurements in ordinary daily life. Being intimately in contact with the skin is the only way to do it.”
Being intimately in contact with the skin is the only way…
— John Rogers, professor at the University of Illinois
So Rogers has designed super-thin, barely-there electronics that can stretch, wrinkle and flex with the skin. Harvesting power from radio waves, they measure a wide range of health data beyond what current gadgets can monitor, from hydration levels to muscle fatigue. This information can then be uploaded to a smartphone, which alerts users if they’re at risk of dehydration and even recommend how much water to drink, for example. Massachusetts-based startup MC10 , which Rogers co-founded, released its first device with Reebok last year — a head impact indicator for contact sports called the CheckLight. A more advanced version should hit store shelves this year, along with a health tracker that you can stamp onto your skin .
These pliable electronics may even be able to detect and treat diseases, eliminating the need for bulky diagnostic equipment. Rogers is piloting a catheter fitted with flexible circuits that can locate and repair damaged heart tissue. He’s also developing devices that could one day deliver anti-cancer drugs or other therapies — and then dissolve without a trace. Last summer, he wrapped up a clinical study of a dissolvable device that delivered bacteria-killing heat that helps wounds heal.
Electronics are usually built to last — the more rigid, the better. But in the late 1990s, engineers began experimenting with flexible computer displays. When Rogers started his own lab at the University of Illinois in 2003, he wanted to “go beyond flexible,” he said. “Most organs in the body bend and swell and stretch. If you have those mechanical properties, you can integrate electronics with biology.” But how could he make a stiff silicon wafer stretch and bend?
The answer came in the form of another question. Rogers had just finished giving a lecture on soft lithography — a method for duplicating structures by stamping them onto a surface — and a student asked if the technique could stamp silicon.
BioStamp can be stamped directly onto the skin and collects data on body temperature, hydration levels, UV exposure and more.
Turns out it was a brilliant idea. After some experimenting, Rogers discovered that slicing silicon at a certain angle and rinsing it in a special chemical solution caused the resulting sliver to come off the stamp pad like ink. Etching a circuit board onto the stamp pad made it possible to imprint silicon circuits onto any surface. That’s when his research “really kicked off,” he said.
Last year, Rogers’ company, MC10, teamed up with Reebok to release the CheckLight for contact sports, which uses a sensor inside a soft skullcap, along with a small screen that flashes red in response to severe blows that warrant medical attention. An even more advanced version will be launched this year.
Now Rogers wants to move beyond soft, stretchy devices toward ones that dissolve after they’ve done their job.
MC10 also unveiled a prototype last year known as BioStamp, which can be stamped directly onto the skin and sealed with a spray-on bandage. Sensors detect body temperature, hydration levels, UV exposure and more. BioStamp can then upload this information to a smartphone or send it to a doctor’s inbox. The imprint lasts about two weeks, withstanding stretching, flexing and even showering. MC10 hopes to release a version of BioStamp at the end of this year.
Flexible circuits may even be able to treat medical conditions. Last year, Rogers began testing a catheter fitted with circuits in open-heart surgery patients. Typically, separate catheters are used to unblock clogged arteries, insert tubes and repair damaged tissue. Rogers has combined these functions into one “smart” catheter that can map the surrounding tissue at the same time it tracks temperature, pressure, blood flow and electrical activity. It also emits radio signals to remove damaged tissue. The upshot? A speedier (read: safer) surgery.
“By adding that intelligence, doctors can make better decisions about how they are performing the procedure,” MC-10 co-founder Benjamin Schlatka told Bloomberg.
Now Rogers is moving beyond stretchy devices toward ones that dissolve after they’ve done their job, eliminating the need for a second surgery to remove them. These devices are made of water-soluble materials that are safe for the body to absorb . Multiple layers of protective coating encapsulate the circuit, buying enough time for it to do its job before it, too, vanishes. Rogers and his colleagues just completed a pilot study of a dissolvable device that covered patients’ wounds, radiating bacteria-killing heat.
Rogers’s team still has details to work out, such as ensuring the wearable electronics remain stable after constant pulling and flexing, but he insists “these are manageable engineering challenges.”
You may not see Rogers’s devices in the operating room for a few more years, but they could come to a gym near you in a few months. “It’s all coming soon,” he said. Say goodbye to clunky, awkward wristbands, and say hello to smarter, seamless health.