Portable electronics on and in the body

Printed electronics is revolutionizing medicine. A conversation with John A. Rogers, professor at Northwestern University in the US state of Illinois, about monitoring systems and other flexible electronic devices that can be worn directly on the skin or implanted inside the body.

Professor Rogers, with printed electronics you develop flexible biomedical devices capable of mounting in an imperceptible fashion on the surface of the skin. What applications do you have in mind?
“This skin-like, or ‘epidermal’ electronics—establishes clinical quality streams of data on health status, continuously outside of clinical or laboratory settings. Here, mechanical flexibility of the electronics is crucial, as the devices must adapt perfectly to the shapes of the human body and to follow natural movements without constraint.”

What other advantages does printed electronics offer besides flexibility?
“Some people see printing techniques primarily as a low-cost alternative to the usual production methods. Although cost is always an important consideration, our focus is more around enhanced or unique function, at a reasonable cost.”

Do you print the electronic components for the monitoring patches directly on films?
“Certain components we print, while others we produce with other schemes—we choose whatever manufacturing method makes the most sense, given an array of considerations in cost, function, size, form factor, biocompatibility.”

Among other things, you have developed a monitoring patch for babies.
“Yes, these wireless, flexible platforms mount gently and directly onto the skin such that the skin serves as a measurement interface for monitoring all vital signs—heartbeat, respiration rate, body temperature, blood oxygenation and blood pressure. Here, first and foremost, we have in mind applications for premature and critically ill newborn babies, due to the fragility of their health status and corresponding critical need for continuous monitoring without the encumbrances of traditional wired-based systems.”

Who are you currently collaborating with?
“Since much of what we do these days involves the development of advanced medical technologies, many of our partners come from the clinical sector. But we also have joint projects with in the consumer industry. With La Roche-Posay from the L'Oréal Group, for example, we launched a sensor that quantitatively tracks exposure to UV light from the sun, in a millimeter scale device that operates wirelessly and without a battery, as key unique defining features of the technology. In sweat analytics, we have devices that measure sweat and electrolyte loss, as the basis for a joint product with the sports drink manufacturer Gatorade. Moreover, we are collaborating with companies from the life sciences sector on implantable electronics for cardiac health. As an academic, if you want your engineering research to have broad impact, you have to think hard about commercialization and various pathways to manufacturing and production—things that do not naturally happen in a university environment.”

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