Four groundbreaking advances in the life sciences industry

Californian sea slug to create microneedle electrodes

From breakthroughs in medical technology to innovations in farming methods, advancements in life sciences have the potential to unlock tremendous benefits for society. Biologists, engineers and chemists make use of their advanced skillsets to develop new technology and processes that can help to solve some of the biggest problems in the industry.

1. Flexible microneedles for dynamic tissue sensing

Scientists have developed a method to make flexible and customisable microneedle electrode arrays that can stretch. These tiny needles can be tailored for specific purposes like sensing or stimulating different parts of the body and are good for sticking into tissues and moving with them - making them useful for tasks like recording muscle activity. These microneedles could be handy for various medical applications, from monitoring brain signals to delivering drugs. The scientists who developed these needles tested them in the mouth tissue in a sea slug (Aplysia californica). The sea slug’s mouth tissue is responsible for functions like feeding, biting and swallowing, and the muscle groups tested expand and retract, which is why the needles must be stretchy (so they don’t break or damage the tissue).

The needles have a bright future, with myriad potential use cases. Think implantable devices, prosthetics, and deep brain stimulation, for starters.

rheumatoid arthritis

2. Rheumatoid arthritis smart monitoring device

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic inflammatory disease-causing painful swelling, bone erosion and joint deformity. In autoimmune disorders, like RA, the immune system wrongly believes that something is going wrong in the body. In the case of RA, the immune system thinks there is something wrong with the tissues that make up joint linings and attacks these tissues - causing inflammation.

Managing RA requires ongoing care and researchers have developed an Integrated Smart Device (ISD) - a wearable tool - equipped with tiny needles to track inflammation and deliver treatment through the skin. These needles, made of a special material, measure inflammation levels and administer medication as needed - effectively reducing inflammation in lab and animal tests.

The ISD (which uses flexible electronics and tiny needles) not only monitors inflammation but also delivers drugs and provides electrical stimulation. While effective in reducing inflammation in rats with arthritis, further research is needed to address challenges such as incomplete predictions of inflammation. Nevertheless, the ISD shows promise in revolutionising RA management and potentially treating other chronic diseases. Future studies will focus on its effectiveness in clinical settings and exploring applications in diseases like diabetes and depression.

Drone grippers bio engineering

3. Bioinspired drone grippers

Scientists have developed soft grippers for drones, inspired by the gripping capacity of plant tendrils. These grippers are able to adapt their shape to grasp objects - similar to how tendrils wrap around branches for support. The grippers are activated by passing an electrical current through them so that they are able to grasp delicate objects, such as a bouquet of flowers or a branch floating in water. By mimicking natural processes, scientists have created grippers that are lightweight, adaptable and capable of grasping objects in various environments without the need for complex control systems. This development is an advancement in the life sciences field as it applies principles from biology to create innovative solutions for robotics and aerial technology. It demonstrates how insights from the study of biological structures can be translated into practical applications, expanding our understanding of biomechanics and bioinspired engineering.

spinal chord injury rehabilitation advancement

4. Flexible electronics to monitor spinal cords

The spinal cord is a highly important component of the body, transmitting motor and sensory information between the brain and the rest of the body. Spinal cord injuries can be devastating, and treatment can be difficult or unrealisable. However, scientists are looking into using thin-film, flexible electronics to interact with the spinal cord. The technique being developed allows for simultaneous recording and stimulation of different tracts within the spinal cord using a single device. Their experiments on anesthetised rats have demonstrated successful capture and elicitation of motor and sensory signals, and they have developed a proof-of-concept closed-loop system for bridging complete spinal cord injuries. They have also managed to verify the safety of the device in freely moving rodents. Furthermore, studies using a cadaver model suggest potential for human application. This research is holds great potential for clinical implementation, utilising materials and surgical techniques to minimise risk during implantation and preserve spinal cord integrity.

These thin-film, flexible electronics could ultimately revolutionise spinal cord injury rehabilitation by enabling closed-loop systems to restore motor function and sensory perception and help with chronic pain management, neurological disorder treatment, and enhancing prosthetics and brain-machine interfaces.

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