Article Archive
March/April 2012

Biochips to Monitor Patients

By Jessica Girdwain
Aging Well
Vol. 5 No. 2 P. 6

A new medical device promises to change the way doctors and patients interact. Spencer Rosero, MD, a cardiologist at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York, describes the implantable “living” chip for which he recently earned a US patent as “something a bit out of Star Trek.” He believes the medical device will revolutionize the way doctors and patients interact.

The diagnostic technology puts living cells into a tiny biochip smaller than the size of a dime that’s then implanted into a patient. These living cells can detect biological changes within a patient’s body and send feedback to the patient and doctor about problems or impending illness.

“The chip contains living cell lines that are designed to be very sensitive to their environment and are good at picking up a particular disease. They tell us when something is wrong and can predict ahead of time when a patient is sick, even before they know,” says Rosero.

The process that led to the development of the chip started when Rosero and his colleagues noticed their patients coming into the office with vague symptoms and indicating that they weren’t feeling well. After conducting a smattering of tests (eg, heart rate, blood pressure), “Everything would come back normal. On paper, they looked great,” says Rosero. “But the patients would know something wasn’t right or would feel worse for the next few days. Five days later, they’d be in the hospital.”

So Rosero set out to determine whether there was some way to monitor disease, predict illness, and determine exactly what was going on in the body before symptoms emerged.

Rosero developed the technology to do just that, which now “allows us to get information on the patient earlier when the body is first reacting to illness. If you intervene before patients get sick, you can eventually prevent them from ending up in the hospital,” he says. He hopes that by using this new technology, patients will need to see their physicians less frequently.

How It Works
The biochip works by housing these cells in a small chamber encased in a biomembrane that allows cells to maintain contact with body fluids such as blood, and thus receive important signals from them. Housing cells in a chamber will keep them protected and prevent immune cells from attacking them. When, as Rosero points out, “something is not right within the body,” the cells inside the chip will secrete a protein that a detector inside the device identifies, subsequently sending a message to a wireless device.

Patients will have the option of sending this signal to their smartphone. In turn, the smartphone will provide feedback about the medications they’re currently taking. It may tell patients they need to take their medication, take an extra dose, or skip it altogether for the day. “[With] some medications, we don’t know when a patient is going to need it or not, and this chip would give us feedback in real time on exactly when they need it,” he says.

Together with an algorithm programmed into the chip, the device would be able to give patients feedback on when they may get sick. “Over time, the technology would learn that once your body starts producing specific symptoms, you always get sick three days later, for example. With that info, you’d alter your medications,” Rosero explains.

Practical Applications       
As the biochip is developed, Rosero’s aim is to use different cell lines depending on a patient’s disease profile. “Certain cells are good at picking up the protein that you want. For example, if you’re undergoing chemotherapy and worried about blood cells being damaged, we might need to use a different cell line that’s designed to pick that up. This is very specific technology. I’d compare it to firmware for your computer,” he says.

Similarly, the biochip can pick up on the body’s responses to medications, including drug toxicity. That’s an important function since many patients are taking potentially dangerous medications. “By detecting side effects and altering the dosage, it allows patients to stay on their medication,” Rosero explains.

However, as exciting as this advance is for the medical community, Rosero’s technology isn’t yet available for use in humans. In fact, human testing won’t begin for about five years, he says. In the first model, the biochip will likely be implanted under the patient’s skin. As the technology advances, his hope is that it will be placed directly into blood vessels.

“There’s no other device out there like this, and that’s why it takes a long time to get out into the market. It may be eight to 10 years before the chip becomes more widely available, and even then it will likely only be used to track patients with severe chronic diseases,” he explains.

Rosero notes a few potential downsides to the biochip. For one, scientists aren’t sure how long they can keep cells alive in an artificial environment such as an implantable chip. The cells would have to live long enough during disease treatment, whether doctors were addressing a cancer patient’s chemotherapy or heart failure. “We need cells to stay alive for a few months for certain diseases but others we need good survival for one year. That’s something we’ll be working on as we further develop this technology,” Rosero says.

Still, the chip represents a big step forward in doctor-patient interaction. “The way we administer medication is pretty similar to how we did it 2,000 years ago. With the chip, we can respond to problems on the spot. It’s the first time we’re using real-time biology. I think this device will be transformative,” Rosero says. “It truly will empower patients to take charge of their care.”

— Jessica Girdwain is a Chicago-based freelance writer who has contributed health-related articles to several national magazines.