Oct. 28 - Scientists in the United States who have developed electronics that dissolve inside the body, say they will one day replace conventional materials for use as medical implants. Encased in silk, the electronics could be adapted to monitor infections or deliver drugs before harmlessly melting away in the body. Ben Gruber has more.
Professor Fiorenzo Omenetto is checking on his silk worms in this dark basement laboratory at Tufts University. Omenetto and his team, along with researchers from the University of Illinios, are transforming the silk these worms produce into a new generation of electronic devices. They built their first prototypes by incorporating materials used in conventional electronics, like silicone and magnesium and encapsulateing them in the silk. Omenetto says the trick was adjusting the properties of the silk so it could be programmed to dissolve on demand. (SOUNDBITE) (English) FIORENZO OMENETTO, PROFESSOR OF BIOMEDICAL ENGINEERING, TUFTS UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "It's a little bit like making pasta in a certain sense. You boil the fibers in water with a lot of salt and that breaks down the fibers and then you remove the salt and you are left with liquid silk." This liquid silk is then formed into sheets that protect the nano-thin electrical components. Once the device has done its job, the silk dissolves…along with the electronics. Researcher Mark Brenckle says the team's first prototype is a thermal device that can be implanted in the body to monitor and kill infections without harming surrounding tissue. (SOUNDBITE) (English) MARK BRENCKLE, RESEARCHER, TUFTS UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "The device has an antennae which couples in power from outside which will then power a small heater which will cause a local area, local temperature increase. So, then if we can then increase the temperature a few degrees in the area of an infection - that will be enough to kill the bacteria without doing a whole lot of harm to the surrounding tissue." (SOUNDBITE) (English) FIORENZO OMENETTO, PROFESSOR OF BIOMEDICAL ENGINEERING, TUFTS UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "If somebody has surgery and has a fracture you could be one of these devices on the fracture sight and then go ahead and close up after the repair has been done and then monitor the progress of infection and relay the information on infection at the sight and then not go in anymore to retrieve the device. " Omenetto says that similar silk-based devices could eventually carry payloads of drugs to target diseases in the body, although he admits, there's much work still to be done. Animal and clinical trials have to be conducted and technology found to increase the production of liquid silk. But ultimately, Omenetto is confident that it won't be long before disappearing silk is the material of choice for medical implantation around the world.