Rethinking Healthcare

A camera that melts inside your body

Posting in Science

New ultra-thin electronics implant beneath your skin, then dissolve when no longer needed.

Many of us may choose our electronics for their hardiness. If you're going to invest in a piece of machinery, you want it to stick around for a little while.

But a group of chemists and engineers reporting in the journal Science have a different aim in mind for their electric equipment. They want to build devices that once placed in the body, break down after a desired duration of use.

James Gallagher of BBC News explains:

Ultra-thin electronics that dissolve inside the body have been devised by scientists in the US and could be used for a range of medical roles.

The devices can "melt away" once their job is done [...]. The technology has already been used to heat a wound to keep it free from infection by bacteria. The components are made of silicon and magnesium oxide, and placed in a protective layer of silk.

Silicon is water soluble, thin sheets of it can dissolve in as little as a week. The arrangement of crystallized silk around the silicon determines how long it will last. The devices function the same as other body electronics, but don't require further surgery for removal.

The researchers have already tested such material in a 64-pixel digital camera that can take pictures inside the body. They've also experimented with dissolvable temperature sensors and solar cells.

Gallagher reports:

John Rogers, a mechanical science and engineering professor at the University of Illinois, said: "It's a new concept, so there are lots of opportunities, many of which we probably have not even identified yet."

He told the BBC one likely use would be in wounds after surgery. "Infection is a leading cause of readmission, a device could be put in to the body at the site of surgery just before it is closed up," he said. "But you would only need it for the most critical period around two weeks after surgery."

Rogers' team has also tested a wound-heating device that kills off bugs in lab rats.

These innovations seem like an odd direction for medical technology to go in our increasingly waste-conscious climate. Why make something that can't be re-used? But then again, by dissolving into person's body the used electronics don't technically create more waste. And reducing the need for extra medical procedures has powerful life-saving potential.

[via BBC News]

Photo: Beckman Institute

Audrey Quinn

Contributing Writer

Audrey Quinn is a Brooklyn-based multimedia journalist focused on health, tech and the economy. Her radio stories can be heard on Marketplace, Studio 360, PRI's The World, NPR's Latino USA, Deutsche Welle Radio and The Believer Magazine podcast. In addition to her work with CBS Interactive she produces multimedia science stories for online publications and is a teaching assistant at the Transom Story Workshop. Her investigative work has been awarded by the Fund for Investigative Journalism and The Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure