A giant step forward for dissolvable medical devices

An international team of scientists successfully created electronic components that dissolve in the body, a crucial building block for dissolvable medical devices. Picture something that performs its mission inside the body and then dissolves into nothing once finished, and that's where the work is heading.

Scientific American, National Public Radio and a number of other media organizations highlighted the stunning new work, which is featured in detail in the journal Science.

The potential for this work goes well beyond dissolvable surgical stitches, as the articles note. In short, engineers developed a wireless microchip made of silicon, magnesium and a version of reconstituted silk. Once its work is done, it dissolves, triggered initially by the silk and how it is woven into the other elements. The process worked successfully in rats, in which the electronics dissolved and were flushed out of their bodies. The silicon and magnesium levels are also well below the maximum level for safety, Scientific American noted, so the chips theoretically would be safe in the body. 

Companies are already developing advances such as stents that are absorbed back into the body, but this technology jumps a hundred steps ahead, potentially enabling a complex medical device to essentially disappear from inside the body once its task is done.

So how could this be used? How about a tiny device that would fight infections after surgery and then dissolve when its task is complete? Can you envision a special imaging device that takes pictures in the body, sends the images remotely to a computer and then dissolves when done? The research team sees their technology fueling both, and many other medical device scenarios. Such an advance would have enormous benefits, eliminating the need to use surgery to remove a device. Still, much more work needs to be done. Researchers must continue animal studies, ultimately test the technology's safety in people, and even before that, identify medical applications for which the technology would create the most benefit.

Researchers from Tufts University, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Seoul National University in South Korea, Northwestern University, Dalian University of Technology in China and the University of Arizona all collaborated on the research.

- read the NPR story
- check out the Scientific American piece
- here's the journal abstract