What is biomimetic sensor technology?

Biomimetic sensors is a new technology with the main objective to collect data and process this information in real-time, at the high speeds, offered by advanced chips nowadays. This data can be analysed with different artificial intelligence techniques providing noteworthy advances in various sectors such as health.

In the eleventh edition of their cycle of lectures and debate in science, the Fundación Ramón Areces and Springer-Nature analysed the role that biomimetic sensors are assuming when it comes to diagnosing and treating different diseases. They have gathered four leading researchers in this field to discuss what has been achieved so far, as well as the objectives that are set for the coming years.

Biomimetic sensors offer hope for many patients, such as those who suffer from diabetes or neurological diseases and represent a window for knowledge advancement related to the human body and mind. Engineering, biomedicine and bioethics share laboratories in this new field for experimentation.

Biomimetic interfaces - such as skin sensors or those that can be ingested - have revolutionised the ability to monitor human tissues in a minimally invasive and continuous manner. They also offer great opportunities to advance in terms of knowledge and treatment related to many diseases.

Western medicine has been based mainly on studies of patients monitored in a hospital environment. With the advent of electronic devices and materials capable of measuring physiological parameters in a continuous and non-invasive way, there are new opportunities to understand health, in addition to disease, and to study larger and more representative groups of the global population. These tools are inspired by the functioning of biological systems, since they are able to monitor physiological patterns and respond precisely to biophysical stimuli.

George Malliaras who is a Prince Philip Professor of Technology at the University of Cambridge presented the results of his study in the development of brain interaction devices designed to pick up weak signals without the need to implant them inside the brain. The new materials, that show a mixed electronic/ionic conductivity, allow them to measure the weak signals that emanate from the neurons. Thanks to this technology, novel electrodes can measure signals from individual neurons without penetrating the brain. In addition, the transistors they work on can further increase these signals, which will allow the detection of neuronal activity more effectively.

Maillaras’ team is currently manufacturing electronic devices that can change shape to be implanted through a small hole in the spinal cord or in the brain, with a minimally invasive procedure, as they aim to deploy them internally and cover a larger area.

On the other hand, Ana Maiques, founding partner and executive director of Neuroelectrics, presented at the Fundación Ramón Areces the latest devices developed by her company in the field of non-invasive and high-definition cranial stimulation. This neuromodulation therapy is currently being used to diagnose certain neuronal diseases like epilepsy or neuropathic pain. It is also used in cognitive disorders to improve memory in situations of dementia or executive functions in children with attention deficit disorder.

Neurolectrics’ next challenge will be to use the technology not only to treat epilepsy but for other neurodegenerative diseases. Bringing new therapies in a field as complex as the brain is difficult not only for science but also for regulatory and market reasons.

Assistant Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at Boston University, Rabia Tugce, pointed out that the ingestible electronic devices could be a very promising technological advance for the diagnosis and management of many gastrointestinal diseases. Improvements in the ultra-low-power microelectronic design have allowed the gastrointestinal tract to be evaluated through images and measured gas levels, temperature and pH. The ability of these devices to record, process and transmit information efficiently and wirelessly makes them an excellent option for non-invasive monitoring. This biosensor device will allow monitoring the level of inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract and thus predict the appearance of disease outbreaks and establish an early treatment.

Rabia’s next challenge is the miniaturisation of these ingestible capsules on a millimetre scale, as well as the reduction of energy consumption so that they can work with autonomous recharge and thus facilitate a longer-term use.

Meanwhile, Marc Guell, member of the Department of Experimental and Health Sciences at Pompeu Fabra University, broke down a new line of research to genetically modify the microbiome bacteria with the aim of detecting changes in skin tissue.

Taking advantage of the abundance of Cutibacterium acnes bacteria in human skin and their association with sebaceous glands, his group is modifying the strain genes of these bacteria to use them as abnormality sensors.

For example, they use them to detect changes in the radiation received by the skin or in its hormone levels. Their objective is to modify these bacteria so that they not only act as sensors but can also modulate changes in sebaceous secretion or in the immune system.

Developing a series of bacterial sensors that are precise in the detection of changes and, at the same time, very sensitive so that they can detect minimal variations, is the next objective of the group led by Guell. On the other hand, they consider it very important to develop these sensors in a way that does not alter the host or the skin environment.

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