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MEDRC: Improving Medical Devices with Microelectronics

The wearable vital signs monitor can continuously measure heart rate, blood pressure, blood oxygenation, stroke volume, and respiratory rate. Continuous monitoring of these vital signs can help assess the wearer's overall state of health and identify risks for cardiovascular diseases. Photo via MIT.

The wearable vital signs monitor can continuously measure heart rate, blood pressure, blood oxygenation, stroke volume, and respiratory rate. Continuous monitoring of these vital signs can help assess the wearer’s overall state of health and identify risks for cardiovascular diseases. Photo via MIT.

As our technological devices become smaller and more portable, healthcare companies are tasked with creating medical devices that can go unnoticed by the user while collecting long-term data. This challenge is a key point of focus at the Medical Electronic Device Realization Center (MEDRC) in Cambridge, Mass., a partnership between industry – microelectronics experts, medical device creators and medical professionals – and academia like MIT. MEDRC aims to create innovative microelectronic technology to improve healthcare outcomes.

The center was established in 2011 at MIT to foster the development of patient monitoring devices and communication technology, improving patient experiences and better connecting patients to clinicians with the overarching goal of lowering costs, too. “We monitor patients for long enough times that you see different clinically relevant physiological parameters,” says Charlie Sodini, professor of electrical engineering at MIT and co-director of the MEDRC. “We can make an earlier diagnosis to get people the therapy they need before having an episode.”

Currently, the center is focused on a few key areas of work. First is a minimally invasive technology that monitors activity 24/7. Generally, wearables are items that people wear for certain periods of time. But by implanting devices into people, researchers could receive long-term data. For example, when monitoring conditions like epilepsy, having access to data that runs continually is much more useful than data that only tracks activity for shorter time periods. These implantable devices are still in the planning stages, but Sodini hopes they will help bring earlier diagnoses and a better understanding of patient ailments.

Second, Sodini and his team are working on point of care solutions, which bring the instruments of managing healthcare directly to the patient. One form of this involves delivering a miniature blood work lab to the patient’s bedside. The amount of blood required is in micro-liters rather than milliliters, and the measurement technology is based on electronic rather than optical detection, significantly reducing the size and cost of the system. The new technology is based on microfluidics fabricated on silicon, often called, ‘lab on a chip.’

Finally, MEDRC is focused on imaging. The center is working on several applications for wearable ultrasounds. Over the past 20 years, ultrasound machines have continued to decrease in size and are among the least expensive imaging options. As this technology expands, it could replace more expensive scans like PET and X-rays.

One of these MEDRC ultrasound devices aims to measure the severity of blows to the head by tracking intercranial pressure. Another measures the arterial blood pressure in the carotid artery, which services the brain. Sodini envisions a device on the neck that measures the whole wave form of blood pressure running through the carotid. “We can measure data that has never been seen before,” Sodini says. “In a number of cases that means making predictions about conditions that we cannot do right now.” This ultrasound device would come in the form of a headband that wraps around the brain to take measurements.

Most of these devices are still in development, which means that patients are just beginning to wear them at the research center. “MEDRC is bringing together the great resources of Boston to point out the best ways to use this technology,” says Sodini. “This is the best way to get it out on the market and get it to those who need it.”

Soniya Shah

Soniya Shah

    Soniya Shah is an on-staff contributing writer at MedTech Boston. She's a senior at Carnegie Mellon University pursuing a BS in technical writing. She has experience as a ghost writer and medical writer, and in developing software documentation.

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