Anticipatory Medical and Cellular Devices
Wyss scientists and engineers are developing controllable, dynamic medical and cellular devices to detect malfunctions and infections in the body, and intervene to restore health. Among such devices is one to predict life-threatening events in premature infants, and prevent them from happening. (Photo courtesy B.D. Colen)
In a famous advertising campaign from the late 1980s, an elderly woman lies on the floor near her walker and calls out: "I've fallen and I can't get up." By pushing a button on the device that she wears around her neck, the woman is able to summon help.
Researchers working under the Anticipatory Medical & Cellular Devices platform envision a similarly portable, wireless device -- essentially, a medical PDA that could be worn on a belt. But this one is so attuned to the body's signals that it could detect a life-threatening event, like a fall, before it happens -- and stimulate nerves and muscles to restore normal balance and movement.
Such new classes of medical devices might prevent the heart from going into an arrhythmia, cause insulin to be released inside the body to ward off diabetic shock, or even utilize programmable cells to repair internal errors such as genetic disorders or to fight disease.
Making the move from static to dynamic medicine
Far from being flat or predictable, a healthy body's output signals are noisy and complex. Heartbeats, for instance, are surprisingly variable – much more like the variation of a musical score than the steady beat of a metronome. That complexity allows for a nimble response to the body's ever-changing natural rhythms.
Conversely, any loss of complexity in heartbeat, breathing rate, or brain electrical activity may indicate impending trouble, and offer untapped opportunities for medical diagnosis and therapy. Wyss scientists are developing new computational techniques that reveal subtle variations in these physiological rhythms, which could indicate clinical problems from frailty in the elderly to heart arrhythmias and breathing problems in intensive care patients. These predictive diagnostics could be integrated with miniaturized, wearable devices that deliver physical, magnetic, electrical, optical, or chemical stimuli to the body, thus "rebooting" and restoring a healthy, normal state.
Fighting disease and infection
Our ability to engineer complex gene circuits and cellular devices by assembling interchangeable, standardized and well-characterized "bio-parts" opens up a world of possibilities in fighting disease and infection and helping those in clinical need. This effort will produce a new class of medical devices at the interface of engineering, chemistry, and genetic engineering.
Wyss scientists are designing unique and controllable devices that can sense, probe, and dynamically track cellular physiology and function. Having the ability to process cellular information, these complex devices can intervene to influence and tune gene expression. Using this approach, a variety of parts, networks, and devices from genetic sensors to RNA switches are being constructed to form the basis for antibiotic therapies and cancer treatments.
Shoes with vibrating insoles are being developed to improve the gait of elderly patients. Learn more...
Human balance relies on complex feedback from the senses that govern the body's mechanical stability. But with aging and diseases such as diabetes and Parkinson's, sensory function can fail, dulling the sensory feedback that keeps healthy people steady on their feet.
Wyss Institute researchers have discovered that random vibrations, too subtle to be felt, can prime the sensory system and restore stability. Wirelessly controlled devices in shoes can deliver these vibrations, essentially "jazzing" up the foot's sensory experience and boosting nerve cell sensitivity to external signals. Studies show that elderly people using these devices walk with greater stability. Similar approaches can also be used to improve the sensory function of stroke victims or to increase sensitivity in the feet of diabetic patients, with the intent of reducing the incidence of foot ulcers.
Preventing Infant Apnea
Infant apnea is a life-threatening pause in breathing that is especially common in premature infants. The condition is believed to be caused by underdeveloped brain wiring in the circuits that control breathing and results in oxygen deprivation, which can kill or produce lifelong developmental problems. Wyss scientists are exploring breathing and heart-rate patterns to predict when an at-risk infant will stop breathing. By applying gentle stimulation through the infant’s mattress when such a pattern is detected, it may be possible to encourage normal breathing and limit the risk of a potential catastrophe.
Initial target applications
- Gait control in young and old
·Shoe insoles that restore normal gait in the elderly
·Leg orthotics that normalize gait in children with cerebral palsy
- Prevention of life-threatening events in premature infants
·Anticipatory rebooting device in the NICU
·Portable wireless devices that can go home with premature infants
- Engineering cellular devices for clinical applications
·In vivo reprogramming delivery to cells
·Programmable cells that can detect and treat infectious diseases
Note: The technologies described on this page are currently in the research and development phase and are not available commercially. Any suggested or implied claims have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).