Scientist Canan Dagdeviren is an interpreter for a language without words. A beating heart or a dry patch of skin? She knows they’re both saying something important, speaking the unique language of the body. It’s a lexicon that’s completely different from the Turkish and English that Dagdeviren speaks every day – but it’s one she believes we need to start translating in earnest.
She wants to count up our brain pulses, watch our temperature change in real time and observe how we breathe. This is different from the health-monitoring tech inside consumer Fitbits and smart watches that can count each step and monitor every heartbeat. And it’s not like the sensors inside a typical smartphone that (like some kind of high-tech Santa Claus) see you when you’re sleeping and know when you’re awake.
Dagdeviren says despite all these new ways we have to keep tabs on our bodies, we still aren’t noticing all the tiny, imperceptible and important rhythms happening inside us. So she’s building a new laboratory – a place where she hopes to invent the technology that will decode our body’s vital messages.
The 31-year-old Turkish materials scientist (and member of the Forbes Under 30 list in 2015) is head of the “Conformable Decoders” group starting this spring at MIT. Dagdeviren says it’s here where she and about half a dozen students and researchers on the Cambridge campus will engineer a new class of thin and curvy devices to decipher the language of the human body and deliver drugs. She likes to think of her ideas for patches, needles and pills as Google translate ‘buttons’ for our health Her tiny, unobtrusive tools won’t need batteries either. Instead, they’ll use our body movement as a powerhouse to monitor and record what’s happening inside us.
Dagdeviren has had some success with body-powered electronics in the past. While working on her PhD in materials science at the University of Illinois, she built a pacemaker for mice that never needed to be replaced – it recharged by harvesting energy from the movement of the beating heart. She realized then that the potential for body-powered devices was limitless: “if my device can work on the heart, a delicate organ, it can work anywhere we have motion,” Dagdeviren says.
Dagdeviren’s implantable devices never need replacement batteries – they harvest energy from body movement.
One of her projects that’s already seen its way onto human patients is a skin sensor about the thickness of a Band-Aid. When the thin electric sheet is placed over a moving kneecap or an elbow it can monitor tiny changes in skin stiffness, making us more aware of when we need to hydrate or get out of the sun, as well as screening for and detecting skin cancer, no biopsy needed.
Dagdeviren’s Band-Aid-thick skin sensor has already been tested on patients.
Her high-tech strip translates the information hidden in the dermis into data doctors can use to inform treatment via a colorful map. “The skin is telling us that there is something wrong or there is something changing,” Dagdeviren says.
Other translating tools Dagdeviren’s working on are still in the experimental stage. A hair-thin ‘brain needle’ that her team is building delivers drugs on-demand to the specific skull spots where they’re needed most. That could be helpful when treating neurological disorders like Parkinson’s disease, which affects nerves deep inside the brain. The flexible needles Dagdeviren’s lab is developing could both deliver medicine and simultaneously send back data about how brain tissue is reacting to the treatment. “I am trying to bridge the gap between cutting-edge neuroscience and engineering,” she says.
The work is personal for Dagdeviren: after both her aunt and her grandmother died of rectal cancer, she’s determined to learn more about how things can go wrong in the GI tract. She and her team dream about designing tasty new gut microscopes: why not a strawberry-scented capsule, or one that tastes like chocolate on the tongue? Once the device is swallowed, it could harvest energy from powerful human stomach acid, sending pictures and information about a patient’s GI tract to doctors outside, wirelessly. This imaging pill could take its entire “Fantastic Voyage” à la Isaac Asimov: traveling from a patient’s mouth to… well, the other end – without any invasive scopes or prodding involved.
It’s important to Dagdeviren that all of these devices are multi-functional, sensitive and comfortable for people. Her burgeoning arsenal of information-collecting contraptions are silky smooth on the skin, tasty on the tongue, and pain-free when pushing through the skull. With that kind of thinking, she believes there’s no limit to where the tiny translators might travel next.