March 25, 2010

New Electronics to Fight Off Arrhythmia

A collaboration of universities in the United States has recently produced a new type of silicon-based, biocompatible devices that could in the near future combat the effects of arrhythmia. This is a condition of the heart that makes the organ skip a beat from time to time, or simply move irregularly. The new instrument the researchers developed, which is based on flexible electronics, is implanted via a minimally-invasive surgical procedure, and is capable of regulating heart beats, potentially saving many lives in the process.

The innovation was developed by a team of investigators led by scientists at the University of Illinois. The group also included scientists from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and Northwestern University, in Evanston. With the development of this technology, the advent of surgical electronics may not be far off, the group says. Details of how the system works appeared in the March 24 issue of the respected publication Science Translational Medicine, as a cover story.

At this point, there are two main methods of treating this condition, in addition to other, less-used ones. The first revolves around implanting pacemakers into the heart of patients. These instruments regulate the beat of the heart, but relay on internal power to operate. The other method is called cardiac ablation therapy, and it basically works as follows: surgeons identify and mark clusters of cells that appear to be beating to their own tune, and then they ablate, or remove, them from the heart. But some of the challenges facing these methods include the fact that electrodes to sense and stimulate the heart cannot be readily attached to the smooth, round surfaces that the muscle contains.

John Rogers, the Lee J. Flory-Founder Chair in Engineering Innovation at UI, and also a professor of materials science and engineering, led a team that created flexible electronics for this particular use. The bendable sensor array can be wrapped around the heart all at once, mapping large surfaces for electrical impulses. More than 2,016 silicon nanomembrane transistors are included in the array, each of which is perfectly capable of monitoring the flow of electricity that races through the human heart with every beat. The result is a high-resolution, real-time display of the heart's pulsing cardiac tissues.

“We believe that this technology may herald a new generation of devices for localizing and treating abnormal heart rhythms,” explains UP expert and co-senior author of the work, Brian Litt. “This allows us to apply the full power of silicon electronics directly to the tissue. […] these approaches might have the potential to redefine design strategies for advanced surgical devices, implants, prosthetics and more,” Rogers says. The innovation “sets out a new design paradigm for interfacing electronics to the human body, with a multitude of possible applications in human health,” he concludes.



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