This Smart Pacemaker Simply Dissolves Inside the Body When It’s No Longer Needed

This smart pacemaker simply dissolves in the body when it is no longer needed

A team of scientists created a new type of temporary pacemaker — one that dissolves on its own, without removal. In their latest study, they paired the pacemaker with a series of wireless sensors on the skin, requiring it to smartly monitor a patient’s vital signs and adjust the pace autonomously. If the device continues to show promise, it could one day be used in patients undergoing heart surgery or who otherwise only need a pacemaker for a short time.

Last year, researchers from Northwestern University and George Washington University debuted the first version of the pacemaker.

The pacemaker is made with components that are intended to gradually dissolve in our body fluids, as seen above. (Poison: Northwestern University)

The thin, flexible device is designed to be fully biocompatible, meaning none of the components would trigger a toxic or immune response from the body. It also wouldn’t need batteries or cords — wires connected to the heart that allow a pacemaker to control a person’s heartbeat by sending electrical pulses — to work. And it’s made to be bioresorbable, with water-soluble metals and other components that dissolve in body fluid over several weeks. When a pacemaker needs to be removed or replaced, doctors should: surgical extraction the leads and electrodes attached to the heart. While this procedure is generally safe, it can increase the risk of infection or other complications. Those are risks that the team’s device could theoretically avoid completely.

In their new study published Thursday in Science, the group added more features to their pacemaker. According to author Igor Efimov, a professor of biomedical engineering and professor of medicine at Northwestern University, the pacemaker now comes with a “fully integrated network of wearable devices” attached to a patient’s skin, four in all.

Not only do these devices monitor a person’s heart rate and other vital signs such as body temperature — they also wirelessly power the pacemaker and automatically regulate its pace as needed. A computer network allows doctors to remotely monitor the data collected by the device. And in experiments with live rodents and dogs, as well as human hearts in the lab, the pacemaker and closed-loop system seemed to work as intended.

A volunteer demonstrates the updated pacemaker system's wireless sensors and control unit, which can also send data to an app on the tablet.  (Photo: Northwestern University)A volunteer demonstrates the updated pacemaker system’s wireless sensors and control unit, which can also send data to an app on the tablet. (Photo: Northwestern University)

Efimov estimates that tens of thousands of patients could benefit from this technology. “These patients are newborns with heart defects, adults after surgery to repair a heart valve or bypass a blocked coronary artery, or other patients who need a temporary pacemaker before a permanent one can be installed,” he said.

These new findings, while important, still represent the early stages of research. Efimov and his team plan to conduct larger animal studies of their technology before moving on to human trials. But they have already received interest from several companies and venture firms interested in helping to develop it further. And they believe that if all goes well, their device could make it to the clinic within two to three years.

At the moment, their pacemaker is only meant to be implanted outside the heart, and it’s proven to be more challenging to make one that can safely dissolve in the heart. But if they overcome that hurdle, the technology could become even more widely useful, Efimov said.

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