May 26 2014, 7:17am CDT | by Forbes
Engineers at Stanford University have discovered a way to power medical chips or devices inside your body. This is part of a new medical frontier known as electroceutical devices being developed to treat illnesses or alleviate pain with patients without drugs.
Say what you want about pharmaceutical companies, but they also need to innovate and earlier this month, Glaxo SmithKline (GSK) introduced a prize worth $1M USD for mapping disease-associated neural circuits and just recently set up a $50M USD Electroceuticals venture capital fund to invest into technology and start ups focusing on this market.
Ada Poon, an assistant professor of electrical engineering at Stanford University, had been researching ways to eliminate bulky batteries and recharging systems that have limited the usage and creation of these types of medical devices for a decade.
Her idea was to create a wireless method to transfer the power deep into the body to the device or chip and then use that same power run electronic medical gadgets. Gadgets we know today as pacemakers and nerve stimulators, but also new sensors that could monitor vital functions deep inside the body and drug delivery systems to apply medicines directly to affected areas or innovations that haven’t even been developed yet because of the power restrictions.
In her lab at Stanford, her team built an electronic device smaller than a grain of rice functioning as a pacemaker. That device could be powered or recharged wirelessly by holding a credit-card sized power source above it, outside the body. How she accomplished discovery was by controlling something that surrounds us all the time — electromagnetic waves.
There are generally two types of electromagnetic waves, far-field (from broadcast towers) and near-field (used in mobile communications known as Near Field Communications (NFC) and some medical devices, like hearing aids). There are challenges on both ends of the wave spectrum: far-field waves can travel long distances but get blocked or absorbed by the body, and near-field, travel shorter distances but can’t reach deep enough into the body to sustain the power.
The solution was middle ground. Poon looked at the compromise between the two waves and created mid-field waves - the reach of far-field waves with the safety of near-field waves based on the premise that all waves travel differently when they meet different materials, like biological tissue.
Poon’s solution was a mid-field wireless transfer. Through her newly designed power source, she was able to create the environment that when it moved from the air to skin, it changed its characteristics in a way that enabled it to propagate and she was able to wirelessly power the device inside the body.
Sometimes it’s the things that are right in front of us which deliver the greatest gain.
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