Carnegie Mellon research team develops edible electronics for medical device industry

It sounds futuristic, but today Carnegie Mellon University researchers are developing edible electronic devices that can be implanted in the body to improve patient care.

"We are creating electronically active medical devices that can be implanted in the body," said Christopher Bettinger, an assistant professor in the departments of Materials Science and Engineering and Biomedical Engineering at CMU. "The idea is for a patient to consume a pill that encapsulates the device."

Bettinger, along with Jay Whitacre, a professor of materials science and engineering, is creating edible power sources for medical devices that can be taken orally using materials found in the daily diet.

"Our design involves flexible polymer electrodes and a sodium ion electrochemical cell, which allows us to fold the mechanism into an edible pill that encapsulates the device," Bettinger said.

CMU researchers report that the edible device could be programmed and deployed in the gastrointestinal tract or the small intestine depending upon packaging. Once the battery packaging is in place, Bettinger’s team would activate the battery.

Bettinger reports that the battery could power biosensors to measure biomarkers or monitor gastric problems. The battery also could be used to stimulate damaged tissue or help in targeted drug delivery for certain types of cancer.

"There’s so much out there we can do with this novel approach to medical devices," said Bettinger, a recipient of the National Academy of Sciences Award for Initiatives in Research for his innovative work on advanced materials for next-generation implanted medical devices.  

Bettinger has worked for more than a decade at the interface of materials science and biomedical engineering. Some of his innovative technologies include new synthetic materials that mimic the natural properties of soft tissue and biodegradable electronics that could usher in a new era of electronically active implants. 

Bettinger is an assistant professor in the Departments of Materials Science and Engineering and Biomedical Engineering at Carnegie Mellon. Bettinger received an S.B. in Chemical Engineering in 2003, an M.Eng. in Biomedical Engineering in 2004, and a Ph.D. in Materials Science and Engineering in 2008 as a Charles Stark Draper Fellow, all from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He completed his post-doctoral fellowship at Stanford University in the Department of Chemical Engineering as an NIH Ruth Kirschstein Fellow in 2010. He has received many honors including the MIT Department of Materials Science and Engineering Award for “Outstanding PhD Thesis,” the ACS AkzoNobel Award for Polymer Chemistry, and the Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine Society Young Investigator Award. Bettinger is also a co-inventor on several patents and was a finalist in the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition.

Carnegie Mellon is a private research university with programs in areas ranging from science, technology and business, to public policy, the humanities and the arts. More than 12,000 students are currently in attendance across Carnegie Mellon’s multiple campuses worldwide. Carnegie Mellon’s main campus in the United States is in Pittsburgh, Pa. It has campuses in California’s Silicon Valley and Qatar, and programs in Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe and Mexico.

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