The latest news from academia, regulators
research labs and other things of interest
Posted: January 1, 2008
UConn developing implantable chip for soldiers
(Nanowerk News) By 2014 the Army may issue more than combat gear to deploying soldiers. University of Connecticut researchers are developing an implantable chip that would be injected under soldiers' skin to help monitor vital health information while they are out in the field.
“It sounds like science fiction but it's not,” said Fotios Papadimitrakopoulos, professor of chemistry and associate director of the Institute of Materials Science at UConn. “We're taking components from traditional biology and nanotechnology and trying to marry them.”
Six UConn faculty members have been working to create a nanosensor, just millimeters in length and width, that will be used to monitor soldiers' glucose and lactose to make sure the soldiers are not exhausted and are receiving proper nutrition.
While the research has been ongoing for the last decade, the Army has become involved over the past five years in helping develop the technology. The $471 billion defense spending bill that President Bush signed on Nov. 13 included $1.6 million for UConn's program.
“The Army has a tremendous interest in the well-being of their soldiers and they want to make sure they are in tip-top shape,” Papadimitrakopoulos said. “The Army has made a big effort in monitoring their soldiers remotely.”
The silicone nanosensor will be small enough to pass through the tip of a standard hypodermic needle, which will be used to implant the device in the wrist. The soldier will wear a watch-like transmitter that will receive readings of the soldier's glucose and lactose levels.
“Glucose is like fuel for soldiers,” Papadimitrakopoulos said. “Lactose is what makes us tired.”
Embedding the sensor is more complex than simply getting a shot in the wrist, because of the body's immune system reaction.
“The (body's) reaction is inflammation, what you typically see if you get scab or splinter. Inflammation is the body's reaction to get rid of foreign matters,” said Dianne Burgess, professor of pharmaceutics at UConn and member of the research team.
After the nanosensor is implanted, the immune system sends “scavenger cells,” she said, to try to eat it. When that fails the immune system cocoons the sensor in fibrous tissue. Unlike pacemakers and defibrillators, nanosensors cannot function while so entombed.
To trick the body into not attacking the sensor, researchers have created a gel coating that contains time-release anti-inflammatory medication. Burgess said they have created a sensor that would stay implanted in a person for at least three months.
A prototype of the sensor has been assembled and the university will use this new grant to work on synchronizing the implantable nanosensor with the wrist transmitter.
UConn researchers believe a fully functional device is five years away from human testing. But they are not the only researchers working in the field.
“The competition is unbelievable,” Papadimitrakopoulos said. “But we believe we are very advanced.”
Clemson University in South Carolina is also in the race to develop an implantable sensor to monitor soldiers' vital signs. In July the Department of Defense gave the school $1.6 million to develop similar technology.
Even though both universities are attempting to create nanosensors with the same function, Papadimitrakopoulos isn't worried about Clemson. He said his rival's device, which is about the size of a grain of rice, is much larger than the UConn prototype.
Researchers hope that the blossoming technology could also be used in people with diabetes.
“This is more than an Army project, this is an implantable device that tells us something about the physiology of humans,” he said.
UConn scientists are looking at ways to use the technology to help change the way diabetics monitor their blood sugar and live their lives.
“Right now (diabetics) prick their fingers five times a day and we don't have a picture of what happens in between,” Burgess said. This sensor would be “completely revolutionary.”
She said the nanosensor could be used by diabetics to help understand how their bodies respond to eating and exercise and in turn produce an individualized medication and care plan.
Burgess said microelectronics will continue to change the future of medicine in how information is gathered and how people are treated.
Nanosensors are “not only part of treating medicine, but they have an enormous future in preventative medicine,” Burgess said.