With John Rogers’s wearable sensor technology, hospitals will forever be changed. Not only is he nixing the need for bulky medical monitoring electronics that tie patients to their beds, he eliminated sticky chest electrodes and obtrusive fluid ports, and cut the power cord to everything. There’s no other way to put it: The “epidermal electronic systems” (EES) devices developed by his materials lab at Northwestern University are simply mind-blowing. For example, consider Rogers’s neonatal heart monitor. A thin, skin-like membrane just bigger than a postage stamp adheres to a patient using no adhesives whatsoever. Instead, attractive forces between atoms keep it in place, meaning no skin irritation. It requires no power, wirelessly communicates with a smartphone or tablet, and can stretch and compress like skin with no harm to the electronics. The secret behind Rogers’s miniature wearable tech lies in the novel ways he controls the chemistry during manufacturing and application. New technology based on his ideas is now on shelves, like L’Oréal’s battery-free, fingernail-mountable UV-radiation meter, lauded by dermatologists as groundbreaking. But Rogers’s innovations are more than skin deep. His lab is currently developing devices that work inside the body, like brain filaments, battery-free pacemakers, drug-delivery systems that absorb into the body, and other technologies poised to revolutionize the patient experience worldwide.
When John Rogers is faced with a problem, he locks on until he finds a solution. His career, which crosses fields as diverse as materials science, neurological surgery, computer engineering, and chemistry, is all-consuming. But Rogers wouldn’t have it any other way: tirelessly ambitious, his top priority is to develop patient-friendly technologies that can provide insight into our health, extend our lifespans, and enhance understanding of how the human body works.
The results of his efforts speak for themselves. Rogers, director of the Center for Bio-Integrated Electronics at Northwestern University, has developed wireless systems used by medical professionals to assess, diagnose, and treat heart and brain diseases. He has created ultra-miniaturized implants that can be injected into patients to study brain function and provide electrotherapy to treat neurological disorders. Some of his implants can even deliver drugs directly to a targeted organ and then absorb safely into the body, with no additional surgery needed.
All of these inventions are incredible—but it is the development of wearable technologies called “epidermal electronic systems” (EES) that have the greatest immediate potential to transform medical care forever. During his 13-year tenure at the University of Illinois, Rogers perfected his EES devices. They can wirelessly extract, monitor, process, and communicate information from inside the body without requiring surgical implants. They adhere easily to the skin, like a temporary tattoo, and are so flexible that the natural bending, stretching, and twisting of patients’ skin do not cause any damage to the electronics. Data is collected and transmitted wirelessly to a smartphone or tablet.
Conventional electronic medical monitoring devices tether patients to their beds with bulky cords and require the use of sticky, skin-irritating electrodes and obtrusive fluid ports. Such monitors are uncomfortable and cumbersome for adults and, for certain patients, can present heightened risks. For example, nearly 300,000 babies are born prematurely in the United States each year and require monitoring in the Intensive Care Unit that can last for months. Because premature newborns’ skin is often underdeveloped, typical adhesives can cause injuries and scarring. The cords restrict movement and natural interactions between the baby and mother, which may delay bonding and emotional development.
Rogers’s neonatal heart monitor has the potential to change all of this: a thin, skin-like membrane just bigger than a postage stamp is placed on the baby’s chest using no adhesives at all. The monitor requires no on-board power source—so there are no cumbersome power cords—and wirelessly communicates clinical-quality information. The device is so gentle that it has been used successfully on babies as young as 26 weeks gestational age—the most fragile preemies.
But Rogers doesn’t stop with laboratory research. He wants his devices out in the real world, where they can have an authentic impact on our daily lives. His team secured funding from the Gates Foundation and the Save the Children Foundation to distribute 20,000 neonatal heart monitors to underdeveloped areas of India, Pakistan, and Zambia where no monitory capability for premature babies exists.
Blending science and technology has been a motivator since Rogers’s early days at Bell Laboratories. Renowned for its innovation and advances in fundamental physics, material science, and development of new technologies, Rogers credits Bell Labs for his commitment to economically sustainable manufacturing practices and marketing of his technologies. In fact, he has translated his scientific breakthroughs through the commercialization of more than 100 patents, by co-founding eight companies, and by collaborating with major players like Medtronic, Reebok, and L’Oreal.
Take Rogers’s battery-free UV-radiation meter, which has been lauded by dermatologists as groundbreaking. As rates of melanoma skin cancer is increasing, Rogers says, it is important to have a device that can provide UV information so people can make healthier choices about sun exposure. Importantly, the device must be easy to use—which is why the UV device is so small that it’s worn on a fingernail and is durable enough to withstand a run through the washing machine.
Other new technologies will be on shelves soon, including a device that can measure both biophysical (heart rate, breathing, muscle tone) characteristics and biochemical assessments. In a major partnership with Gatorade, this new device will monitor the impact of hydration on athletic performance by measuring electrolyte, lactic acid, and glucose concentrations contained within sweat. An exciting potential exists for this technology’s use in clinical applications: if glucose levels can be measured accurately with sweat, patients with diabetes could one day self-monitor without a finger prick.
Rogers has been recognized for his research by many awards, include a MacArthur Fellowship (2009), the Lemelson-MIT Prize (2011) and, most recently, the MRS Medal from the Materials Research Society (2018). His tremendous accomplishments have only just begun and his extraordinary innovations are poised to revolutionize the patient experience worldwide.
Information as of March 2019