Sunday Sitdown: John Rogers on his far-out sounding bioelectronics research

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Bioelectronics pioneer John Rogers, who’s leaving the University of Illinois for Northwestern University, is aiming to use electronic devices to monitor and improve health. | James Foster / Sun-Times

Northwestern University is aiming to become a center of next-generation medical research now that it’s snagged pioneering scientist John A. Rogers, who’s leaving the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and bringing his 25-member team to Evanston in the fall of 2016. Among his projects, he’s testing skin-adhesive devices that look like fake tattoos to transmit detailed information about the body.

Question: You’re known for designing and developing electronic devices that can bend, stretch and twist and that can integrate with the body to diagnose and treat illnesses. You have a few fake tattoos that are interactive devices and could one day replace the need for drugs to treat ailments. Why are the tattoos a superior option?

Answer: We’re talking about an engineered, targeted approach to health care — whether in the form of a skin-mounted system or those that insert into the body — that leverages all the sophistication of modern electronics technology. It could yield improved outcomes without the difficult-to-anticipate side effects that often come with a standard drug-based approach. Instead of, or in addition to, a drug to treat a disease, we’ll use a piece of electronics.

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It looks like a fake tattoo. It’s actually a low-cost bit of electronics that could play a big role in monitoring and improving health, says bioelectronics pioneer John Rogers, who’s leaving the University of Illinois for Northwestern University. | James Foster / Sun-Times

We’re working with neurologists at Washington University in St. Louis, for example, to test devices that interface with the pelvic nerve. The hope is that people with loss of bladder control can manage it with these devices through automatic electrical control at the nerve.

Other uses, which could potentially be approved in a few years, are for these skin patches — epidermal electronic devices —to monitor preemies and check that patients with Parkinson’s are taking their medications so they don’t fall.

We have the OK to start using these patches with preemies at Lurie Children’s Hospital downtown, where we plan to initiate tests later this year. We hope that in just a few years we’ll be able to use these thin, soft, skin-like wireless monitoring devices to replace the rat’s nest of electronics —wires, patches, glues, tapes and straps — that you see these babies hooked up to today.

These new systems transmit data wirelessly. So they have no wires or hookups, and they are so thin, small and soft they don’t cause any irritation on the skin, and they don’t constrain the baby’s movement. One type of device transmits data on the amount of oxygen in the blood based on red and infrared light from microscopic light-emitting diodes. It can also measure pulse rate and pulse-wave forms to determine the health of the baby’s heart.

Other versions measure electrical activity associated with the beating of the heart. Others capture brain waves. Because the devices are so small, several can be mounted and operated at once on different regions of the body for full vital signs to be monitored.

Another technology is being commercialized by MC10, a Cambridge, Massachusetts, startup that designs technology to precisely measure a person’s activity and the kinematics of their motion. So a person with ALS or Parkinson’s disease or another motion disorder can place a device on his wrist, another on his chest and one on his leg. And with the appropriate analysis algorithm, that person’s caregiver can determine whether he or she is taking his meds just by capturing and automatically analyzing the detailed characteristics of body motion and muscle activity.

In the corporate world, a customer in a controlled environment like a cruise ship or theme park can use these electronic tattoos to store passwords, unlock a smartphone and pay for goods and entertainment.

The notion of bioelectronic medicines has a lot of legs. No pun intended. Price is not going to be a big challenge. The simplest tattoos for payments and authentication can be manufactured for roughly 50 cents apiece and can be recycled or thrown away. We feel that these initial technologies are pretty much ready to go now. We’re actively pursuing application possibilities.

Q: So the really futuristic vision is that you take the next step of developing three-dimensional electronics that can be used as scaffolds to grow cells? In plain English, you could grow cells inside someone’s body to grow a new kidney for a dialysis patient or grow a healthy heart for a person with heart failure?

A: We are using an active electronic scaffold — think a 3D, microscopic spiderweb mesh —in which you can grow cells. The idea is that the scaffold can interact with the cells as they move around, differentiate themselves and proliferate to grow a hybrid biological tissue. Forming a bionic organ like this is out on the “lunatic fringe” of the things we’re doing — but on a 20-year timescale, it could have some real potential. We try to make clear it’s very exploratory and way out in the future.

Q: Using electronics to help treat mental illnesses by monitoring brain function and changing the circuitry —where is that going?

A: We are very enthusiastic about this, but you have to bear in mind that right now nobody even has a clear idea of how the brain works. We’re collaborating with researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, where the focus is to use our brain-integrated electronics to monitor and stimulate electrical activity to detect and prevent epileptic seizures.

With researchers at Washington University, we are working with neurosurgeons to stimulate or inhibit activity in specific neural circuits using very thin filamentary threads. Those threads act as interfaces to cellular-scale light-emitting diodes that insert into targeted regions of the deep brain. These systems allow us to watch how the operation of those circuits affects the animal’s behavior.

The LEDs are about the same size as a neural cell.The researchers inject the LEDs into the animal’s brain and leave them there. They have wireless radio frequency control. The animal doesn’t know it’s there.

The animal is freely moving around. You can flip a switch and turn the LED on or off in the brain.

We used an LED to activate a neuro-circuit that is responsible for production of dopamine. By flipping the LED on and off, whenever the rat is in a certain region of his cage, we can cause him to develop an affinity to that part of the cage. After this type of training, the animal remains in that location even without operation of the LED.

There is an ongoing debate over whether those techniques will have human relevance. Many feel that genetic modifications needed to induce sensitivity to exposure to light will involve too many risks. Others believe these are manageable. Everyone agrees, in any case, that these techniques will lead to basic insights into brain function, with direct relevance for treating mental disorders.

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John Rogers. | James Foster / Sun-Times

Q: What drives you?

A: I’m at a mid-point in my career. My main goal is to see this broad collection of technologies through to the point that they can have some significant positive impact on human health. Although skin-mounted systems offer some relatively near-term opportunities, all of the implantable technologies involve a regulatory process that could take five to 10 years. As a result, you begin to feel a sense of urgency.

Q: What do you do for fun?

A: For me, this is fun. I don’t feel like I need an extra hobby.

When I’m not working, I try to keep up with my son John on the tennis court. He just turned 13 and is big into sports and tooling around with remote-controlled cars and planes, which is fun for me, too.

My wife, Lisa Dhar, who is also a scientist — we met at MIT and both spent time at Bell Laboratories — and I are looking for houses right now. We’ll probably buy in the spring and move here next summer. Lisa grew up in Northbrook, so it will be a homecoming for her.

I enjoy jazz. Our research has a strong jazz aspect to it: You don’t always know what you’re doing and where you’ve going, but, if you’re lucky, you can still make something beautiful.

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