Everyone knows someone who has had a knee or hip replacement or heart surgery.
It's not fun, but what a Tucson scientist is working on right now could make it a lot easier on you and me if we ever need that kind of surgery.
It's new technology that goes right into your body and, believe it or not, someday might go right into your phone.
Some day our cell phones might be made of biodegradable polymer, a plastic.
Imagine what that means.
For now the future of that dissolvable polymer will be inside our bodies.
Making cell phones and even computers and other consumer electronics out of biodegradable polymers is a bit off in the distance.
But here's the idea: You don't need that cell phone anymore? Make it disappear.
"On Mission Impossible where you effectively activate something and then with time--shhhh--it kind of goes away."
That's Dr. Marvin Slepian, University of Arizona cardiologist, engineer, scientist.
He says we won't see dissolving cell phones or computers soon, but the medical applications are right around the corner.
"I mean this is the hot thing that we're working on because we've been working on this for 25 years and this is kind of the meeting of the minds," says Slepian whose official title is UA Professor of Medicine and Biomedical Engineering.
The "meeting of the minds" he's talking about combines his work in biodegradable polymers with the new degradable electronics that scientists at the University of Illinois are developing.
The team's goal is to help patients heal better and stay well longer.
Let's start with devices that go into the blood vessels to keep them open. They're called stents.
"So what we're talking about is the synthesis of our long-standing work on biodegradable polymers and degradable stents with novel new degradable electronics," Slepian says.
Biodegradable stents are about to be used in patients in Europe, and are just a couple of years away from being used in the U.S.
They would replace the current metal stents that stay inside the body even though your body really might only need them for up to a year.
But what if the dissolvable stent also contained tiny dissolvable electronics that could detect potential problems and send out a warning?
"We could theoretically, with electronics, be able to detect days in advance that something was starting to happen to the stent," says Dr. Slepian.
He wants to take it even further.
No more stents. He would custom pave the inside of the artery.
Slepian holds a small plastic tube that he uses as a mock blood vessel. Inside, the tube is coated with a green polymer.
"The green is actually a biodegradable polymer which has been applied and acts as a support," Slepian says. "And if we added sensing electronics into a system that was completely biodegradable, it would detect that things are working well, that flow is good."
And if the electronics detected a problem, such as a blood clot...
"We theoretically could energize it and essentially zap it out like a self-cleaning oven," Slepian says.
"And then slowly, over time, as it's done its job, everything could biodegrade, and essentially what would happen is the material would dissolve."
Dr. Slepian says paving could be done in many tube-shaped things in the body that need support. Think bile ducts and fallopian tubes.
You also could put medications right inside the material.
Now expand the biodegradable electronics idea to other patients.
"One of the big problems we have today is infection of implanted devices. People have pacemakers that are put in. They have artificial hips," Slepian says.
Infection-zapping electronics would reduce the need for antibiotics.
Here's another idea. Biodegradable monitors could be used after certain surgeries instead of the current implantable probes that also have the potential for infection.
"We would be able to monitor it from the outside and if we built it so it degrades within a few weeks, the system goes away. The infection risk goes down. We don't have to remove anything," Slepian says.
He says we should expect to see the first biodegradable electronics in a patient within five years.
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