Bio-sensor work gets MIT prize

By Mark Baard
Globe Correspondent / June 13, 2011

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Sensors embedded in consumer and medical devices can do much to measure a person’s health. Monitors strapped to the chest measure a heartbeat. GPS transponders gauge how far and fast an individual walks or runs. Accelerometers and gyroscopes count footfalls, and can warn of the onset of disease by noting a change in gait.

But getting sensors to work inside the body is another story.

The rigidity and sharp edges of semiconductor wafers, for example, make them a poor match for soft tissues and organs.

John Rogers, a materials scientist and physicist at the University of Illinois, is working with his colleagues to develop thin, stretchable, and flexible “biointegrated electronics,’’ which could line the walls of failing hearts or the bumpy surfaces of the brain.

Such technology could be used to build devices that conform tightly to organs, allowing doctors to better map, measure, and modify body functions, Rogers said.

The idea is to mesh biointegrated electronics, which have layers of silicon 100 nanometers thick, with organs.

“We eventually hope to blur the distinction between manmade circuits and devices and tissues of the body,’’ said Rogers, who this week will receive a $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize for his work in biointegrated electronics and other fields, such as solar power.

For example, Rogers and his collaborators have created a cardiac catheter with an electronics-laced rubber balloon at the tip; it maps the inside of a heart valve and can send a charge to the source of irregular electrical signals.

A surgeon using the biointegrated electronics catheter would be able to do a “map and zap’’ procedure, identifying and ablating malfunctioning heart tissue in five minutes, said Marvin Slepian, director of interventional cardiology at the University of Arizona. He recently coauthored (with Rogers and others) an article about the catheter for the journal Nature Materials. It currently takes up to three hours to accomplish the same task using two catheters — one to map, and one to zap — Slepian said. Rogers hopes surgeons will be testing the catheter in humans within nine months.

He is receiving the Lemelson-MIT Prize partly for his ability to market the technologies he is helping to develop, said Michael Cima, an MIT engineering professor and faculty director for the Lemelson-MIT program.

In 2008, Rogers cofounded Cambridge-based MC10 Inc. to market so-called conformal electronics, which can reside on flexible substrates.

“He is responsible for a string of translatable ideas, which he’s taken from the benchtop to industry,’’ said Cima, who compared Rogers to Thomas Edison.

Rogers, 43, will speak this week at Eurekafest, an annual celebration students attend to be inspired by inventors.