Podcast: Sticker to Monitor Your Internal Organs

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Podcast: Sticker to Monitor Your Internal Organs

In this episode, we discuss a novel sticker capable of monitoring the health of organs in real time allowing for more successful organ transplants and catching signs of diseases earlier than ever!

In this episode, we discuss a novel sticker capable of monitoring the health of organs in real time allowing for more successful organ transplants and catching signs of diseases earlier than ever!

This podcast is sponsored by Mouser Electronics


(3:48) - This ultrasound sticker senses changing stiffness of deep internal organs

This episode was brought to you by Mouser, our favorite place to get electronics parts for any project, whether it be a hobby at home or a prototype for work. Click HERE to learn more about how smart textiles are changing the future of medicine!


Hey folks, welcome back to the Next Byte podcast. And have you ever wondered what if Elizabeth Holmes wasn't lying and Theranos actually worked? Well, we have the answer for you. Folks at MIT have come up with a patch that could tell you exactly what the health of your organs and your body looks like. So, if that's got you excited, buckle up and let's get into it.

I'm Daniel, and I'm Farbod. And this is the NextByte Podcast. Every week, we explore interesting and impactful tech and engineering content from Wevolver.com and deliver it to you in bite sized episodes that are easy to understand, regardless of your background. 

Farbod: All right peeps, as you heard, we're talking about wearables today. We love wearables. I feel like we talk about it at least once every 10 episodes or so. But before we get into today's article, let's talk about today's sponsor, Mouser Electronics. If you've been listening to this podcast for a while, you already know who Mouser is. But if you don't, Mouser is one of the world's biggest electronics suppliers. Now what this means is that they have great connections with industry partners and academia, and occasionally, they write about the things that they know is happening on the leading edge of technology. One article they wrote about that I think is incredibly relatable to today's episode is smart clothes and how they might be the future of healthcare. In this article they talk about e-textiles and how they're a very small market right now but there's a lot of potential to them and then they start digging into the potential. They talk about how right now when a patient is in the intensive care unit or they're just, you know, having a hospital stay, obviously you wanna check a lot of vitals. Some of those measurements that you want require big, heavy equipment that a doctor or a nurse has to be functioning at all times, which doesn't really scale well. It requires a lot of resources, it's very costly. So, what if we could use IoT, we could use sensors to just monitor a patient passively, and if there's an any issue, we raise some sort of indicator that has the nurse or doctor come and take care of the patient.

Daniel: That's what you get. That's the advantage there of this wearable technology. You get convenient, constant, round-the-clock monitoring when doctors can't provide that level of attention and then it kind of can flag doctors or medical professionals to say, this is the person, this is the first part of their body that you should focus on, right? Allowing them to apply a bunch of extra leverage to what they're doing, basically giving them a heat map. These are the nine patients that are healthy. This is the one that needs your attention right now. And that I'm sure will result in improved outcomes in the medical space for a lot of people. Obviously, I'm personally interested in like, hey, maybe there's a way that I can get a running tank top that highly instruments me and understands what my body's doing during a run and can help me measure my performance as well, which is a little bit different from the medical space, but I mean, in the lifestyle and training space as well.

Farbod: Yeah, and one thing that I think is also interesting is you might have a small hospital that can't afford a hundred-thousand-dollar piece of equipment, but they could afford like a couple of stickers that are worth a hundred bucks or a thousand bucks per package that can be used on a dozen patients.

Daniel: Well, and let me one up you there.

Farbod: One up me.

Daniel: Mouser obviously, like we said, electronic supplier, they bring the knowledge base as well. One of the cool things that I like about what they do is they're like, hey, if you want to start this project, here's the one piece you need. And in this case, they've linked Adafruit Manufacture Part 659, which is a $14 chip that's sewable into textiles and is fully featured to do all sorts of things like health monitoring, et cetera, and it costs 14 bucks.

Farbod: There you go. That's why we love working with Mouser, right? Not only do you get to learn about these things, but right away, you get your weekend project going.

Daniel: Yeah.

Farbod: All right, with that said, let's jump into today's article. We're going to MIT. Now, this is an interesting one. They've created this small ultrasound sensor back in 2022. The idea was kind of like what we just talked about with the e-textiles in hospitals, is if there's a way to easily image what's going on inside of a patient's body, it would be great, but previous attempts at creating a small, flexible sensor that could do that all just kind of failed. And the reason they failed is that for these ultrasound sensors to work, you need transducers to emit a noise into the body and then you need a receiver that picks up that noise and it tells you information about what it just saw.

Daniel: And that's how ultrasound works, right? It's like radar. You're sending out sound waves into the body and then measuring or collecting the image of the reflection of those sound waves as they come back and generating that into a picture that you can tell, hey, this is what it looks like, what's going on inside your body.

Farbod: Exactly, so that was like the goal that everyone was trying to kind of hit. The reason they were having issues with this is once you make that sensor flexible, there's like bends that happen. And those transducers and receivers, they start to bend and there's distortion in the data that they're sending and picking up, which means you're not actually getting any sort of good image. So back in 2022, these folks adjust this distortion problem by their secret sauce. And there's, you wanna talk about the secret sauce or do you wanna talk about it?

Daniel: No, go ahead.

Farbod: All right, so their secret sauce was instead of having this sticky adhesive that is directly connected to the transducers, which is allowing to bend, let's layer it up. You have the base layer, the adhesive that is sticky, that goes on the body, that's flexible. And then you have a layer on top of that, that's a hydrogel, it's a water-based membrane, which allows those acoustic waves from the transducers to get picked up and go out as clearly as possible. And then on the top layer, you have the solid transducer array which is not bending. So, what that just means for the end user is that the sensor can still bend, but the part that shouldn't be bending doesn't bend at all.

Daniel: And it doesn't distort the images. It doesn't distort the image. Doesn't distort the pictures. And what I think the secret ingredient in the secret sauce is that hydrogel layer in the middle of that sandwich, right? Instead of just having the flexible sticker part attached to the rigid sensor part, that wouldn't work unless you had something like the hydrogel help bridge the gap. Imagine if your, your arm is bent, you know, your arm is a curved surface and you're trying to use a flat planar sensor array. You need something to kind of bridge the gap between those two that is flexible enough, that's reliable enough, that's durable enough to basically make sure that the sticker stays sticking on you. In addition, it also needs to be able to conduct those ultrasound waves to make sure that the sensor is working properly. It totally defeats the purpose if the sticker stays on, but the sensor doesn't work effectively. So, this squishy, sticky material in the middle of the sandwich, that hydrogel, is what's helping bridge the gap from a mechanical perspective, right? Make sure that bending on the flexible, sticky part doesn't affect bending on the sensor. But it also helps bridge the gap from an ultrasound perspective, helping make sure that the sound waves transmit cleanly into your skin and back without any trouble.

Farbod: Exactly. And that was a big step in the right direction years ago. And where we kind of left off is the research team was saying it's great, we can image different organs right now like depending on where you've put this little sticker. What they wanted to work on is process the data that they were getting for example for checking the status of a fetus or the progression of tumors and they were talking about potentially making it wireless and just a couple ideas that they had in the back of their heads and that's kind of where it left off. Now we're in 2024. Now we're going to be talking about the meat and potatoes of their most recent efforts that involves the sensor. And that's gonna be about organ health. So, I did not know this, but apparently over time, like as we age, our organs start to stiffen. One of the analogies they used, it was like, you can think of like a super healthy young organ, like a soft-boiled egg, and then when it gets like super stiff and age, it comes to become like a hardboiled egg.

Daniel: Well, and not just age as well, right? It's an indicator of health as a whole. So diseased livers or kidneys, even if you're not that old, you have a diseased liver, a diseased kidney, it starts to get this high level of stiffness. Similarly, if you were to get a kidney transplant, let's say, and your body was accepting the kidney, it would be very soft and pliable, but if your body was rejecting the kidney after the transplant, it starts to get stiff as well. So, this stiffness is an overall, you know, it's not the main indicator, let's say, but it's a very strong indicator of the health of an internal organ. And it's one of the best ways to tell the health of that organ without having to cut the body open and see what's going on or send a camera in to see what's going on. You can use the stiffness of an organ as a proxy for the health of the organ overall. And that's basically what they're doing here is they're saying, hey, if I've got this stiff organ inside the body, let me see how the ultrasound waves reflect off that and understand the image versus if I have a soft, flexible, pliable organ inside the body, how do the sound waves reflect off of that? And they can monitor changes in stiffness over time by monitoring the changes in the sound waves over time to see if that organ's getting healthier or less healthy. And I think it's like an awesome application of the platform they designed before, but now it's this groundbreaking technology that's got the opportunity to change healthcare as we know it.

Farbod: It's funny, you brought up the transplant, and this process that you're talking about, sending the sound wave and making sure that it's not stiff over time, that's exactly what's being used without these stickers in hospitals right now. So, they use an ultrasound elastography machine, and they say the first 72 hours of the transplant are the most important. So, you have an operator like a doctor that's sitting there and checking the health of that organ. I'm guessing in like regular intervals to make sure that there's no definition.

Daniel: Yeah, like let's say every couple of hours, the doctor's gonna come in and hold a probe to your body, but there's no way of doing that right now continuously. And one of the things that they said is like, say after a kidney transplant, you wanna have a really fast response if the body starts to reject it. You might miss that crucial moment, realize too late that the organ's failing, and then at this point, you've gotten like a failed kidney transplant, which has massive ramifications to the person, the patient who had this kidney transplant. Also, the fact that they probably waited on a list for a long time to get an organ, right? Those it's just a waste in specific are ones that like, there aren't a lot of supply to go around to help people with a transplant. You want to make sure that we're getting the highest, highest yield as possible out of these, these surgery scenarios. So, you've now got the opportunity to do continuous round the clock, constant measurement, constant monitoring, let's say of something like how elastic these organs are. And like we said at the beginning when we were talking about wearables with Mouser, right? This kind of gives doctors a heat map of when they should and shouldn't have to intervene.

Farbod: Exactly, you get to prioritize that, right? Because you have patient A, who might be Daniel, who's doing perfectly fine, and you're constantly checking in that might take up 10% of your time during the day, that's not required anymore. And that attention can go somewhere that's needed. In addition to that, like you said, during that period between the check-ins. If there's a failure happening, you can just completely prioritize that, make sure that's taken care of, and try to remedy it in any way possible. So, it's giving us kind of the best of both worlds. You free up their time and resources, and at the same time, you're actually getting a better analysis of what's happening in there. And I guess the question kind of there is, are you getting better analysis than these big machines operated by these doctors? And then testing that they've done, I think rats so far or mice so far only, they are seeing pretty good performance over the course of 72 hours. And that's again, I think 72 is 48.

Daniel: I think it's 72.

Farbod: 72. So that the duration that is most important for transplants, like if that's the application that we're going to say is the most important one, they're seeing pretty good results on animal experiments.

Daniel: Well, and what I was going to say is as a patient, right, especially using again, the kidney as an example, so you just had a kidney transplant, you're obviously in pain, that's a pretty invasive surgery. To do an ultrasound probe, I'm guessing, someone has to go touch a probe on your back and feel around where you just had this kidney transplant. That could be pretty painful for them to monitor the health of the kidney after it's been transplanted. One of the things, I wanna read the quote here. There's an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School who was not involved at all with the study but was asked to comment on this. And she said, like, this doesn't just allow patients to suffer less, right? You also get this prolonged real-time monitoring of disease progression, but also free trained hospital personnel to do other important tasks. So, it's like this three, you know, win-win-win scenario where one, it's not as painful and invasive as having someone go put an ultrasound probe on your back. It's just a sticker. You put it there, set it and forget it, so to speak. On the second part, you get constant monitoring as opposed to only getting a couple data points every few hours. And then the third part there is you can do all this without having to have actual people do it. Let's hospital personnel focus where they need to and give people space where they don't, which is like, again, that, that would be super awesome if you're able to sleep for the next 24 hours after being constantly, constantly peppered by a nurse who's just trying to make sure that you're doing well, um, without being constantly peppered by people you get the opportunity to recover faster too.

Farbod: Sure. I mean, it's funny seeing the progression of this idea, which went from, we need a solution of a flexible sensor that we can just kind of patch on a patient. And then two years later, we're seeing the first direct application of this and its immediate benefits. So, then my question is, what's next for this team? You know, they kind of set the goal two years ago that they're gonna try to find some processing level. They already did that. And from what I can tell, and the feedback the research team gave is now, I think this thing is still wired, it's still not wireless. They wanna focus on making it an all-in-one solution where you have the sensor that's on you and then another compartment that you can also wear that has the processing, power module, everything else that's required. So, I don't know, this seems pretty promising, and if I was a patient at a hospital and I needed to have a transplant or anything done to my organs, this is the kind of detailed data I would want to be gathered instead of the periodic check-in to make sure that my health is doing well. But in addition to that, I think it would also be nice to have, even if you're not a patient that's in a hospital, for example, if there's benign tumors, right? If you could have something that monitors your body over the course of the year, because usually you're checking in with your doctor during your checkup, and it's an annual checkup, that is able to provide that level of feedback of, yeah, the benign tumor has not grown, everything is good instead of, if worst case scenario, it is growing and you don't catch it for a full year, being able to spark your doctor and be like, hey, you need to come in right now.

Daniel: Well, that's one thing I thought about for sure, right? They mentioned like, you can send a patient home faster, right? Doctors, you know, maybe after kidney transplant, they keep them in the hospital. I don't know, I'm making this up, but they keep them in the hospital for three, four days to make sure that they're okay after that. Maybe after this, you could be like, first 24 hours, we're going to make sure you're okay, then we're going to send you home and we're going to be remotely monitoring your vital signals to make sure that this kidney transplant's going well. That's awesome, right? Sending people home, reducing hospital costs. I have a loved one who's like, just had a major medical procedure. And one of the most frustrating parts for him was like staying in the hospital for a long period of time after he felt like he was like just ready to go home and be home with his dogs and stuff like that. And in addition to that, like you said, just doing at-home disease progression monitoring, doing preventative health monitoring, I think about things that most people dread about going to their doctor, especially as they get older, like with men, like a prostate exam and for women, their mammogram, like those are really pretty invasive from a privacy perspective, but they're just preventative health, trying to make sure that you don't end up with something that makes you sick. I could imagine the much-preferred alternative to this being just like, hey, your doctor's gonna send you this sticker in the mail, you gotta wear this sticker on you. You put it on once a month and it sends this data to your doctor and your doctor can tell you whether you need to come in or not. It probably, increases the amount of early catches that we have, and then also decreases the amount of invasive procedures that people have to have on a regular basis. One of the things I thought in general too, is there's like, do you know Brian Johnson?

Farbod: Yes, the guy who's gonna live.

Daniel: The blueprint guy, his motto is don't die. I could see him totally using something like this, like to just adhere a couple of stickers to his body. Maybe he's already using something similar, once a week and checking with your doctor. Then you can measure all these vital signals, track the health of all your major organs within the body without having to do like, a huge, three hour full body scan or anything like that, or even having to go and check in with the doctor, you could just, you know, put a sticker near your heart, put a sticker near your kidneys, put a sticker near your liver and make sure that everything's working well. And you can check it on your phone every single day. Like I do my sleep score with my aura ring.

Farbod: You know, if Brian makes a tweet or announcement that his liver is working like an 18-year-old, I'm going to take that as a sign that he's listening to this podcast.

Daniel: Maybe he is.

Farbod: Yeah. But yeah, in general, I, I'm pretty excited about like the impact that this project can have. And I'm happy to see its growth. Again, like two years ago, the first step, big step, and then now you're seeing its progression. And I'm curious about what the future holds for it. Hopefully, this thing isn't just something that's kept in the lap, it actually ends up making its way through human trials, if human trials are needed, and then it can be a common item that you find in a hospital or even for your doctor to tell you to take home with you. With that said, is it time for a wrap up or is there anything else we can talk about?

Daniel: Yeah, man, I just, before we do that, stuck out to me is I'm like, is this like what Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos finally promised? Like their thing was like, we can take a couple drops of blood and tell you the whole, the health of all your organs inside your body. Or I also thought about the medical tri quarter in Star Trek. Dr. McCoy is able to just like, with like a tiny drop of blood scan, exactly what's going on inside the body. Jarvis can do it for Ironman. Be like, Oh, like your heart is failing, right? I'm wondering if like, if this is the real-life version of the sci-fi. Well, I guess Theranos wasn't sci-fi. That was just a lie.

Farbod: Yeah, it was imaginary.

Daniel: But if this is like the real-life manifestation of this technology from science fiction, it's just turning into science, not fiction.

Farbod: Like werewolves being diagnostics. Yeah, that's a good point. Maybe, maybe we're almost there. The Star Trek future is only a decade or two away. Yeah, and it's a fun way to think about it.

Daniel: Maybe once Elizabeth Holmes is done with her 11 years in prison, she can come out and work on something like this.

Farbod: Let's not have her associated with anything in medicine. That's my stance. But on that note, so folks, what you need to know is the people at MIT have come up with a sensor that can image the inside of your body in this very easy, side of postage stamp, wearable, flexible, and they came up with this two years ago. So, they were like, what if we just don't stop at imaging? What if we process this data to give us even more insight about what's going on in our body? And that's where their most recent work kinda comes into where they are able to understand the age and health of organs in our body through this sensor, which is sending out ultrasonic signals, like these waves that vibrate our organs a little bit, and the wobbliness of our organ that's gonna return to us tells us if it's healthy or not. Now, that's great for obviously general health, like understanding how your liver's doing over time or your kidney, but it's super impactful for cases where you have something like an organ transplant, because the first 72 hours, or rejection can happen, having real-time monitoring without the current approach that requires a nurse or a doctor or any sort of operator to manually do those checks will give us the level of insight we need to get involved if we need to get involved right away instead of after the fact. So that's why this is so exciting. We can save so many lives in addition to making sure that our bodies are healthy on a day-to-day basis with this technology once it hits the shelves.

Daniel: And, it's the real-life version of the medical tricorder. It's the real-life version of Jarvis. And it's like, if Theranos wasn't lying.

Farbod: I feel like we've referenced Star Wars, Star Trek. Is there like a holy trilogy of geeky nerdy sci-fi that we should be, is it Dune? Is Dune the last one?

Daniel: I think it's Dune. We disagreed about this right before we started shooting, but I think Dune might be part of this, you know, Holy Trinity.

Farbod: Oh God. It would have been part of that. Movie's coming out in a week. We should have integrated on this one. Well, we can't. We'll think of something for next week's episode.

Daniel: Yeah.

Farbod: I guess until then, thank you all for listening and we'll catch you the next one.

Daniel: Peace.

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The Next Byte: We're two engineers on a mission to simplify complex science & technology, making it easy to understand. In each episode of our show, we dive into world-changing tech (such as AI, robotics, 3D printing, IoT, & much more), all while keeping it entertaining & engaging along the way.


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