Better Conforming Medical Devices

Imagine you’re a patient being treated for Parkinson’s disease, which causes tremors. The disorder kills brain cells that produce the neurotransmitter dopamine, so you take medication to increase dopamine production. Rather than swallowing a pill, which disperses the drug throughout your body and potentially causes unpleasant side effects, you have a computerized implant that infuses just the right amount of medication directly into your brain. Meanwhile, a flexible patch on your knee uses ultrasound to continuously measure the cadence of your gait, minimizing the possibility of a life-threatening fall.

These treatments don’t exist yet, but they’re part of a future that Canan Dagdeviren envisions and is already starting to build. Her Conformable Decoders group at the MIT Media Lab focuses on developing “mechanically adaptive” electronics: medical devices that can flex and fit with any surface of the body, inside or out.

“The form factor changes depending on the target, so that we can achieve an intimate integration with the soft tissue,” says Dagdeviren, the LG Career Development Professor of Media Arts and Sciences. The group’s goal, she adds, is to design devices that “can conform to your brain wrinkles, or the wrinkles on your face.”

Breast cancer work

Conformable devices will make it possible to monitor a patient’s health more comfortably, Dagdeviren says, noting that screening today typically takes place in medical offices with devices that are flat, bulky, or rigid. Breast cancer, for example, is often diagnosed with an ultrasound probe, a hard wand rubbed over soft tissue. But a conformable ultrasound patch could surround the breast tissue and even be comfortable enough to wear under clothing, enabling both better images of the underlying soft tissue and a more personalized understanding of its long-term health.

Canan Dagdeviren works to develop “mechanically adaptive” electronics—medical devices that can flex and fit with any surface of the body, inside and out. Photo: Courtesy of Canan Dagdeviren

In early 2021, Dagdeviren received a five-year, $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop precisely this technology. Her conformable patch emits ultrasound from various points on the surface, creating a sequence of images in quick succession that are stitched together by software into a full 3-D scan of the soft tissue. The patch currently needs to be tethered to an external device that generates the ultrasound images, but Dagdeviren is working toward a self-contained, wireless version that would let people self-screen their bodies for disease on a daily basis.

“I have a history of breast cancer in my family, so I should get checked twice a year. That’s two data points—you can’t even make a graph of that,” she explains. “But with conformable technology, given that you can wear it all the time, you could take data on a regular basis and see the progression of a tumor over time. It makes it easy to gather large data sets that are helpful for understanding how your body is functioning.”

Dagdeviren directs the highly collaborative process of developing these devices in a dedicated clean room nicknamed YellowBox. There, even the tiniest dust particles are kept from contacting and damaging sensitive microcircuits while her team prototypes these flexible electronics. Covered in head-to-toe gowns, her students directly experience the entire pipeline of designing, fabricating, and testing conformable electronics, from hand-cleaning delicate silicon wafers all the way to publishing their findings. “Every undergraduate in my group publishes at least one journal article,” says Dagdeviren, who received a 2017 Outstanding Mentor Award from MIT’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program. “They usually publish more than one.”

In July, Dagdeviren began testing her ultrasound patches with human patients. She’s also very much interested in working with MIT’s Future Founders Initiative, which supports female-led biotech startups. “Only about 15 percent of the female faculty launch a company at MIT, so I am trying to be one of them and include my group members,” Dagdeviren says. “I’m trying to educate myself about how we can make this technology real. The applications are limitless.”

This article was written by John Pavlus and originally appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of MIT Spectrum.