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Seamless Integration of Electronics with Living Tissue

In a recent study published in Science, researchers from the University of Chicago have developed a prototype called “living bioelectronics”- a gel, electronics, and living cell combination that can be integrated with living tissue.

Seamless Integration of Electronics with Living Tissue

A wafer-thin patch incorporates a flexible electronic circuit, a gel made from tapioca starch and gelatin, and friendly bacteria that help treat skin conditions. Image Credit: Jiuyun Shi and Bozhi Tian/University of Chicago

Prof. Bozhi Tian’s group has spent years understanding how to connect the worlds of electronics (rigid, metallic, bulky) and the body (soft, flexible, delicate).

The patches are made of sensors, bacterial cells, starch, and gelatin gel. Tests on mice revealed that the devices could continually monitor and alleviate psoriasis-like symptoms without irritating the skin.

This is a bridge from traditional bioelectronics, which incorporates living cells as part of the therapy. We’re very excited because it’s been a decade and a half in the making.

Jiuyun Shi, Study Co-first Author, Stanford University

Shi is a former Ph.D. student in Tian’s Lab, University of Chicago.

We are very excited because it’s been a decade and a half in the making.

Bozhi Tian, Professor, University of Chicago

The researchers anticipate extending the principles to other body areas, such as cardiological or brain stimulation. The study was published on May 30th, 2024 in Science.

A Third Layer

Connecting technology to the human body has never been easy. Even though devices like pacemakers have saved many lives, they have certain disadvantages. For example, electronics can irritate people and are often heavy and rigid.

However, Tian’s group focuses on understanding the basic principles underlying the interactions between synthetic materials and living cells and tissue. One example of their prior work is a small pacemaker that can be operated with light, robust, and flexible materials that could eventually be employed to create bone implants.

This study employed a novel methodology. Bioelectronics are often made of electronics and a soft covering to reduce body irritation.

However, Tian’s team wondered if they could incorporate live cells as a third component to offer additional capabilities. The researchers were fascinated by the ability of some bacteria, such as S. epidermidis, a prevalent bacterium on human skin that has been demonstrated to decrease inflammation and have healing qualities.

They developed a three-component device. The framework is a flexible, thin, sensor-equipped electronic circuit. It is covered in a very soft gel made of tapioca starch and gelatin resembling the tissue. Lastly, the gel contains S. epidermidis bacteria.

When the device is placed on the skin, the bacteria release anti-inflammatory compounds while the sensor analyzes the skin for information such as temperature and humidity.

There was a noticeable decrease in symptoms in experiments conducted on mice predisposed to skin disorders similar to psoriasis.

The system, which the researchers call the ABLE platform for Active Biointegrated Living Electronics, was tested for a week, but they anticipate that it will be useful for at least six months. They claimed that the device could be rehydrated when needed and freeze-dried for storage, making the therapy more practical.

 It’s like a living drug - you don’t have to refill it.

Saehyun Kim, Study Co-First Author and PhD Student, University of Chicago

In addition to treating psoriasis, the scientists anticipate using patches to expedite wound healing in diabetic patients.

They also intend to apply the method to other tissues and cell types.

Tan added, “For example, could you create an insulin-producing device, or a device that interfaces with neurons? There are many potential applications.”

Tian said he has had this ambition since he was a postdoctoral researcher over 15 years ago, when he first started working with “cyborg tissues.”

Tian added, “Since then, we’ve learned so much about the fundamental questions, such as how cells interface with materials and the chemistry and physics of hydrogels, which allows us to make this leap. To see it become reality has been wonderful.”

Shi stated, “My passion has always been to push the boundaries of what is possible in science. I hope our work could inspire the next generation of electronic designs.”

Other research authors at the University of Chicago were Pengju Li, Chuanwang Yang, Ethan Eig, Lewis Shi, and Jiping Yue, as well as scientists from Rutgers University and Columbia University.

The researchers used the University of Chicago’s Soft Matter Characterization Facility and Pritzker Nanofabrication Facility. They also collaborated with the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation to market the invention.

Journal Reference:

Shi, J., et al. (2024) Active biointegrated living electronics for managing inflammation. Science.

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