Can Medical Devices Speak the Body's Language?

Can Medical Devices Speak the Body's Language?

- in Top Tech
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Dagdeviren’s mother inspired another device. In 2012, her mom complained about how difficult it was to treat dry skin, and Dagdeviren immediately imagined how tech might help. As people age, their skin becomes thinner and less elastic; moisturizers restore some of that elasticity.

So Dagdeviren created a small, flexible and stretchable sensor that adheres like a sticker and bends with the skin as a person moves. PZT nanoribbons in the device generate small charges that measure skin elasticity, which indicates how well the skin is hydrated and how well a moisturizer is working. During the design process, she consulted with dermatologists, who suggested the device might also identify some skin cancers in their earliest stages. The patent is still pending on the device. A few companies have expressed interest in bringing it to market, and Dagdeviren says her group is looking for ways to apply the technology to other applications. And wherever it goes, it will always be rooted to her personal history, and her family.

A Spark of Curiosity

Dagdeviren grew up near the sea, so for a change of scenery, her family would trek into nearby forested hills for picnics. One of these outings sparked her interest in science when she was 7 years old, she says. Dagdeviren doesn’t mean “sparked” figuratively. She and her brother had just collected wood for the fire when their mother pointed out some white rocks with sharp edges, surrounded by flowers. Her mother struck two of those rocks together and produced sparks — showing her daughter the secret for making fire spill from stone.

“I loved the idea that you deform this material and create sparks,” says Dagdeviren, 32. “It was very exciting.”

That picnic experiment was akin to something she’d already been reading about. A few months earlier, her father gave her a biography of French scientist Marie Curie, two-time winner of the Nobel Prize and a pioneer in the study and understanding of radioactivity. Dagdeviren was inspired, but not in the way her father had expected. She became infatuated with Marie’s husband, Pierre, who Dagdeviren says was her “scientific love.” Pierre and his brother Jacques first described piezoelectricity in 1880. The Greek word piezein means “to squeeze or press,” and piezoelectric materials generate a charge when squeezed or deformed or smashed — like smashing two rocks together to produce a flash.

As an undergraduate at Hacettepe University in Ankara, still pondering how to make her own sparks fly, Dagdeviren majored in physics. Her father worried she wouldn’t find a job, that she’d be given a hard time as a woman in the field, but she was undaunted. Dagdeviren studied materials and physics, learned about the science behind all the sparks, and designed her first devices.

In 2008, at a materials science conference in Boston, Dagdeviren approached John Rogers, whom she describes as a “king of flexible devices.” At the time, Rogers was at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His lab has produced a dizzying array of miniature biocompatible electronic devices that use soft materials, such as plastics and biological tissues. Many stick to the skin like temporary tattoos. Gadgetry out of Rogers’ lab has included everything from wireless electronic implants that fight a bacterial infection and then disappear, to stretchable batteries made of tiny nanowires arranged to resemble an accordion’s bellows.

Rogers is an alum of Bell Labs (now Nokia Bell Labs), which in its heyday was renowned for turning scientific research into engineering applications with a broad societal impact. Rogers says he runs his own lab on that model, encouraging students to focus on interdisciplinary scientific discovery and also to think about applications. Dagdeviren landed at Illinois in Rogers’ lab, and she fit right in.

Many graduate students in the lab, like Dagdeviren, are driven by personal experiences, says Rogers. “There’s something that really motivates people when they’re working on things that could benefit human health,” he says. “If those devices can save my grandma, then it’s not just a device that works — it has a real, and much deeper impact.”

In 2014, with her doctorate in hand, Dagdeviren joined the MIT laboratory of Robert Langer, whose work blends materials science with biotechnology. His group has designed novel approaches to drug delivery systems, as well as new ways to engineer tissue.

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