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Integrating Electronics with the Human Body

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An Interview with Dr. John Rogers, Louis Simpson and Kimberly Querrey Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, Biomedical Engineering and Neurological Surgery, Northwestern University. 

Recipient of this year’s IEEE EMBS Trailblazer Award, Dr. Rogers tells us a little about his career and the work his lab is doing to develop biocompatible electronics such as the Lab on the Skin.

Q: How did you become interested in science and bioengineering in particular?

A: Parental influence was probably part of it (my Dad has a PhD in physics), but I’ve always been interested in understanding how things work, and how to create new technologies based on that understanding. The most appealing thing to me is research that involves a blend of fundamental science with advanced engineering. Applications in healthcare are attractive to me personally because of their broader societal significance (compared, for example, to a new consumer gadget or piece of software).

Q: What have some of your most rewarding achievements been so far?

A: Fundamentally, as a professor, I’m an educator. The most rewarding achievement for me, then, is to see my students go off and be successful in their own careers. In that sense, I’ve been very fortunate – every graduate student and postdoc to emerge from the group has found rewarding careers in some area of science and engineering; more than 60 are faculty members themselves, training the next generation.

Q: Can you tell us about your lab's main research directions?

A: We are interested in materials and design ideas that allow electronics, and semiconductor devices, to be intimately integrated with the human body, with function that opens up new possibilities in reduced costs or improved outcomes in healthcare. Three organ systems in particular – heart, brain and skin.

Q: What are some of the difficulties of developing wearable electronics?

A: The essential difficulty is in reformulating electronics technology, from the planar, hard, rigid forms that they exist in today (smartphones, conventional wearables, laptops, etc), into soft, shape conformal, biocompatible designs that allow seamless, long-term integration with the soft tissues and surfaces of biological systems. We’ve been able to develop a collection of ideas, materials and manufacturing approaches that solves this essential challenge.

Q: Can you tell us about the Lab on the Skin you have recently developed?

A: Here, we have added capabilities in microfluidic capture, storage and analysis of minute amounts of sweat, as a route to determine physiological health status – sweat rate, sweat loss, pH of sweat and the concentration of key biomarkers: chloride, lactate and glucose, in sweat.

Lab on Skin Microfluidic Device.jpg
A soft, skin-mounted microfluidic device for capture, collection, and analysis of sweat. Credit: J. Rogers

Q: What advantages does this system have over current methods for sweat collection and analysis?

A: Our device is simple, low cost and it allows quantitative analysis by use of color changing sensing chemistries. The devices can be used in a single-use mode, yet still provide accurate, quantitative information with electronic, wireless interfaces to the phone.

Q: How do you see this technology developing in the future?

A: We are developing engineering capabilities for low cost, high volume manufacturing. In parallel, we are creating new sensing capabilities for additional sweat biomarkers.

You can find out more about Dr. Rogers and the work being carried out in his lab here http://www.mccormick.northwestern.edu/research-faculty/directory/profiles/rogers-john.html

Dr. Rogers was speaking to Anna MacDonald, Editor for Technology Networks.