Stanford engineers' electrifying breakthrough

Engineers at Stanford University are hoping that an emerging technology could someday be used to treat diseases in an entirely different way.
Friday, June 27, 2014
Engineers at Stanford University are hoping that an emerging technology could someday be used to treat diseases in an entirely different way.

The engineers say the breakthrough started with the challenge of miniaturizing a small pacemaker. And for Stanford professor Ada Poon, Ph.D., it's just part of a bigger plan to fight disease, by changing the way we think about electricity.

"We came up with a new way to wirelessly power tiny medical devices that could be placed very deep inside the body," Poon said.

To charge those tiny devices without batteries, the Stanford team began experimenting with a new way to project electricity safely into the human body. The system they came up with employs electromagnetic waves similar to those used to power an electric toothbrush.

But researcher John Ho says once the waves enter the body, they begin a kind of natural acceleration.

"Taking advantage of the simple fact that properties of waves change as they move from one type of material to another," Ho said. "These near field waves are converted into propagating waves. And they travel much farther than they would otherwise."

Several inches into the body, in fact -- deep enough to reach the miniaturized pacemaker and power it.

"We demonstrated we can blend the safety of the near field with the propagation of the far field," Poon said.

Powering a new generation of miniaturized devices would be a medical breakthrough in itself. But the Stanford team believes their system has the potential to do much more, like treating disease with electricity.

The target would be the neural pathways that control, and sometimes disrupt, the normal functioning of human organs and other systems in the body. Researchers envision tiny implants that could deliver electricity to block or stimulate those pathways, effectively treating conditions ranging from chronic pain to Parkinson's disease.

"And maybe bring a better quality of life to patients," Poon said.

If successful, she believes the strategy known as bioelectronics could achieve the same results as drug therapies, allowing devices smaller than most pills, to someday replace them.

Written and produced by Tim Didion

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science health technology medical research Stanford University
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