DARPA and NIH-Funded MIT Researchers Create ‘Stickers that Can See Inside the Body’

Using DARPA and NIH funding a team of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has created “stickers that can see inside the body,” which use, in part, hydrogel.

A team of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has created a proof-of-concept for a new “ultrasound sticker,” which is the size of a stamp and is able to provide continuous ultrasound imagining of a person’s internal organs for up to 48 hours. The stickers, which utilize hydrogel in order to function, currently require a wired connection to instruments, but future iterations will function wirelessly.

“Currently, ultrasound imaging requires bulky and specialized equipment available only in hospitals and doctor’s offices,” MIT notes in a press release describing the ultrasound sticker. “But a new design by MIT engineers might make the technology as wearable and accessible as buying Band-Aids at the pharmacy.”

To create their ultrasound sticker the researchers, who outlined their design and prototype in a closed-access paper in Science, paired a “stretchy adhesive layer” with “a rigid array of transducers.” Transducers are electronic devices that convert energy from one form to another—in this instance, by sending sound waves into a human body, which, in turn, echo off internal organs and return back where the echoed signals are translated into visual images.

In order for the ultrasound echoes to work, however, they must travel through a liquid gel, which acts as a conductive medium that creates a bond between the skin and the ultrasound transducer. In this instance, the researchers chose hydrogel as the conductive medium. Hydrogel, for those unfamiliar, is a crosslinked three-dimensional polymeric network structure, which can absorb and retain considerable amounts of water. It’s used to make, for example, the kinds of lipid nanoparticles (LNPs) used to deliver the COVID-19 mRNA “vaccines.” Although not necessarily the ones used for the COVID injections. (But quite possibly.)

To keep the hydrogel hydrated—a necessary state in order for the medium to transmit ultrasound waves—the researchers sandwiched it between two thin layers of elastomer (i.e. a synthetic polymer that has elastic properties). “The elastomer prevents dehydration of hydrogel,” Xiaoyu Chen, an MIT postdoc and co-author of the ultrasound sticker paper, said in MIT’s press release. He added that “Only when hydrogel is highly hydrated can acoustic waves penetrate effectively and give high-resolution imaging of internal organs.”

To test their ultrasound sticker prototype the researchers ran it through a battery of tests on healthy volunteers. The volunteers wore the sticky gadgets on various parts of their body—e.g. the neck, arm, or chest—and they stayed attached to their skin for 48 hours. During that wearing period—which involved various physical activities such as jogging or lifting weights—the researchers report they were able to observe the changing diameter of major blood vessels. The researchers were also able to “capture details of deeper organs,” such as how the heart changed shape during exercise.

Using the wearable ultrasound patches the researchers were even able to “watch the stomach distend, then shrink back as volunteers drank then later passed juice out of their system.”

“With imaging, we might be able to capture the moment in a workout before overuse, and stop before muscles become sore,” Chen added in MIT’s press release. “We do not know when that moment might be yet, but now we can provide imaging data that experts can interpret.”

Image: Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

Interestingly, even though MIT notes “the devices could be applied to patients in the hospital,” or, when the ultrasound sticker evolves to be wireless, “made into wearable imaging products that patients could take home from a doctor’s office or even buy at a pharmacy,” funding for the project—perhaps—signals other uses. The U.S. Army Research Office, for example, funded the researcher through the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies at MIT: a research institute where faculty members, students, and postdoc researchers collaborate with the Army on “innovative fundamental research and rapid transitioning in service” of the US military. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (or DARPA) also helped to fund the research, along with the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Considering that funding, the question must be asked: How will these patches be applied (metaphorically speaking) to soldiers? Or to those people that soldiers may wish to keep track of?

Feature image: Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

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