At 59 years old, Michael Froome just got a new heart. His problem goes back 20 years after a chest pain led his doctor to order a cardiac stress test.
“When they put on the last electrode so the monitor comes live with your data, someone in the room goes, ‘Oh! That’s not good,’” Froome recalled.
Spencer Rosero, a cardiologist at the University of Rochester Medical Center, is one of Froome’s doctors. He has an idea that could cut the number of hospital visits patients like Froome have to make.
“When that oil light goes on, things are already pretty bad in your car. Right? But you don’t know it until it goes off. So, when patients develop symptoms all the feedback mechanisms that provide the balance have already failed. Now you feel sick. If we can catch it earlier, [you’ve got] better quality of life, less time in the hospital, less office visits,” explained Rosero.
Basically, Rosero wants to hack the body to see what’s going wrong at the earliest signs. To catch things as they happen in your engine, you’d need a camera watching things move around in real time. How would you do this within your own anatomy?
"They only way to do that is to use live cells that have their own features and their own ability to measure what’s going on around them, filter out the noise, and then respond,” said Rosero.
Rosero’s answer: a tiny “living chip” implanted in the body that is bioengineered to talk to cells and report back to doctors in real time. It could be customized to both the individual patient and the part of the organ where it’s used.
“So the cells are the up-front, they’re sentries. They’re really the up-front line. They don’t know they’re part of a sensor network. They just do what they’re supposed to do and then we just monitor their response.”
The prototype biosensor is about the size of a watch battery. Doctor Rosero expects future versions to be smaller still. It uses internal electronics, a cell membrane, and photo-optics to watch what’s happening to the inside of the body. Commercial application of Rosero’s biosensor is still 10 to 15 years away, but it could have a wide variety of applications.
The technology could catch heart failure before it happens. Oncologists could lower a dosage of chemotherapy well before a cancer patient develops a toxic reaction. The sensor could even be adjusted to directly target medications to individual body parts.
For Michael Froome a chance to use the biosensor would have been a happier option. As it is, Doctors have had to keep him wired up to devices he’s carried around in a backpack.
“You don’t want to just prevent sickness, you want to live. And it’s been very difficult to live. I’ve survived just fine,” he said. “You would have people dancing in the street if the only thing that doctor Rosero’s sensor did was stop them from having weekly blood draws. That would have been the effect on me.”
In an era of digital wrist bands that monitor everything from your activity to your heart rate, Rosero imagines a future when his device could read out information on your smartphone—improving diagnostic effort for doctors and consumer desires to know more about their own health.