Researchers at Caltech have developed a prototype miniature medical device that could ultimately be used in ‘smart pills’ to diagnose and treat diseases.

A key to the new technology – and what makes it unique among other microscale medical devices – is that its location can be precisely identified within the body, something that proved challenging before.

‘The dream is that we will have microscale devices that are roaming our bodies and either diagnosing problems or fixing things,’ explained Azita Emami, the Andrew and Peggy Cherng Professor of Electrical Engineering and Medical Engineering and Heritage Medical Research Institute Investigator, who co-led the research along with Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering and Heritage Medical Research Institute Investigator Mikhail Shapiro.

‘Before now, one of the challenges was that it was hard to tell where they are in the body.’

A paper describing the new device appears in the September issue of the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering. The lead author is Manuel Monge, who was a doctoral student in Emami’s lab and a Rosen Bioengineering Centre Scholar at Caltech, and now works at a company called Neuralink. Audrey Lee-Gosselin, a Research Technician in Shapiro’s lab, is also an author.

Called ATOMS, which is short for addressable transmitters operated as magnetic spins, the new silicon-chip devices borrow from the principles of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), in which the location of atoms in a patient’s body is determined using magnetic fields. The microdevices would also be located in the body using magnetic fields – but rather than relying on the body’s atoms, the chips contain a set of integrated sensors, resonators, and wireless transmission technology that would allow them to mimic the magnetic resonance properties of atoms.

‘A key principle of MRI is that a magnetic field gradient causes atoms at two different locations to resonate at two different frequencies, making it easy to tell where they are,’ said Shapiro.

‘We wanted to embody this elegant principle in a compact integrated circuit. The ATOMS devices also resonate at different frequencies depending on where they are in a magnetic field.’

‘We wanted to make this chip very small with low power consumption, and that comes with a lot of engineering challenges,’ commented Emami.

‘We had to carefully balance the size of the device with how much power it consumes and how well its location can be pinpointed.’

The researchers have said that the devices are still preliminary but could one day serve as miniature robotic wardens of our bodies, monitoring a patient’s gastrointestinal tract, blood, or brain. The devices could measure factors that indicate the health of a patient – such as pH, temperature, pressure, sugar concentrations – and relay that information to doctors. Or, the devices could even be instructed to release drugs.

The final prototype chip, which was tested and proven to work in mice, has a surface area of 1.4 square millimeters, 250 times smaller than a penny. It contains a magnetic field sensor, integrated antennas, a wireless powering device, and a circuit that adjusts its radio frequency signal based on the magnetic field strength to wirelessly relay the chip’s location.

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