Tiny Technology With a Big Heart
When undergoing medical treatment, physicians frequently determine that a patient's vital signs need to be monitored. This includes closely monitoring things like blood pressure and heart rate. For most patients today, this means a variety of wires and sensors will be attached to their bodies. But thanks to technology developed at NASA, there might be a better way.
A new biomedical sensor which incorporates technology pioneered at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, is currently being developed by a company called Endotronix. The company is investigating using the sensors to measure blood pressure and heart rate.
"When this opportunity came about, we immediately understood that we could tailor our technology for a biomedical application. It was an opportunity for direct societal impact that could assist a lot of people in the medical community," says Dr. Félix Miranda, one of the two Glenn scientists responsible for the technology.
The sensors are about the size of the head of a pin—1 millimeter wide and .5 millimeter thick. Crafted out of gold and silicone, each tiny sensor also includes a multi-turn loop antenna, which means data collected from the sensor can be wirelessly transmitted to an external unit. Called Biomedical Microelectromechanical Systems, or Bio-MEMS, each sensor makes use of NASA patented radiofrequency technology.
Developed for Space, Used on Earth
Dr. Félix Miranda, a supervisory electronics engineer, and Dr. Rainee Simons, a supervisory physicist, are both part of the Communications, Instrumentation and Controls Division at Glenn. In 2001, the Technology Transfer and Partnership Office (TTPO) at Glenn awarded the team $50,000 to work towards finding a way to use Glenn's radiofrequency technology in the biomedical field.
"It is a testament to how much you can do with a small amount of seed money—how you can leverage that," Miranda says. "The center has gotten an acceptable return on investment on this effort, and it has given us satisfaction because we have been able to evolve technology."
Initially, the two were investigating the technology for potential use in space suits, as a way to remotely monitor astronauts' health. The initiative was especially important for astronauts performing space walks, and could prove essential as plans develop to send astronauts further into space.
"There is an emphasis to develop sensors for astronauts that are convenient as well as accurate. Safety is the initial motivation," Simons says.
Drs. Miranda and Simons achieved patents for their work in 2003 and 2007, and extensively published their work. Through these publications, Dr. Anthony Nunez, a cardiovascular surgeon and president of Endotronix, learned about the work at Glenn in 2006.
"Unlike other devices, ours is very small," Miranda says. "[Dr. Nunez] was very impressed by that, and decided that this was the technology he needed for his cardiovascular products."
Endotronix now holds the exclusive license for cardiovascular applications of the Glenn technology. Glenn and Endotronix signed a Space Act Agreement to work on developing and validating the technology for these particular medical uses. Though the Space Act Agreement has now ended, Endotronix keeps Drs. Miranda and Simons updated on their progress.
"We want [Endotronix] to succeed. That is what NASA's 'For the Benefit of All' is all about," Miranda says.
Monitoring and Wireless Transmitting
The cardiovascular sensors will operate by being implanted in the body of the patient. Each tiny unit doesn't require a battery, which means the unit can last indefinitely in the body while causing less damage to surrounding tissue and lessening the risk of infection or toxicity. The device, manufactured out of biocompatible materials, operates by sensing the pressure that the heart or an artery creates when the blood flows by a membrane. It transmits data to a small, portable external reader, which can be worn by the patient or kept nearby for readings. This transmission occurs wirelessly, and the absence of a wire in the body also helps prevent risk of infection and other negative side effects.
Because the sensors are so small, they are not disruptive to the patients in whom they are implanted. All types of patients can potentially benefit from the device, from nursing home residents requiring intensive care to active patients who wish to travel, while still monitoring their health. The external readers are easy to use, allowing patients to take their own readings.
"As this technology evolves to be a product for the general public, it needs to be as simple as possible without sacrificing the accuracy of the information," Miranda says.
Building Bridges and Beyond
Drs. Miranda and Simons have received many accolades for their work. In October of 2009, the two were runners-up in the Wall Street Journal's Technology Innovation Awards, in the wireless category. They also won a 2010 Northeast Ohio Technology Coalition Innovation Award (NorTech Award) for their work, and received commendations from the Ohio State Senate and the Secretary of the State of Ohio.
Endotronix has licensed the technology for cardiovascular applications, but there are other potential uses for these pressure sensors. Companies have expressed interest in investigating the technology for other biomedical areas, such as general surgery and bone, neck and spine health. Other areas of human interest, like structural safety in bridges and buildings, could also benefit from this technology.
"We still have opportunities based on this concept that we'd like to explore, and the agency environment is consistent with this kind of effort. There are good opportunities ahead," Miranda says. "We can really tailor the concept to support diverse applications."
Impacting the Community
The technology, used for both aerospace and non-aerospace applications, is notable. It is the second largest licensing of intellectual property at Glenn and has pioneered a new area of collaboration with the commercial sector.
"This is the very first medical and surgical application for space biosensor technology," Simons says.
Drs. Miranda and Simons are pleased with how their research has been integrated into the medical field, and they are looking forward to seeing what new areas—biomedical and beyond—the sensors may influence.
"It is very gratifying to see that work like this found its way to some commercial use," Simons says. "The technology is doing good for the community, which is very satisfying."
Tori Woods, SGT Inc.
NASA's Glenn Research Center