Flexible treatment for fibrillation

13 March 2011
Posted by Chris Smith.

Many forms of surgery involve identifying a problem and then in some way destroying it. If that problem is visible this is relatively easy, but when you can't see the problem it gets more challenging. For example some forms of heart fibrilation are caused by erronious electrical pathways in the heart causing the heart muscles to beat in the wrong order and so not pump effectively. At the moment finding these often needs applying an electrical probe to the heart thousands to times to track down the problem and then heating the damaged area to break the pathway, this is very slow and can be dangerous to the patient.

A group at the University of Illinois lead by John Rogers has been developing a way of doing this much more quickly. They have taken a balloon catheter which is essentially a tube that can be inserted into the body and then inflated, and then integrated electrical sensors into the balloon. This is of course a challenge as electronics and wires are not naturally stretchy, so they have mounted the sensors in solid lumps and connected them together with zig-zagged wires so they can stretch and set the whole thing in a rubber matrix.

This means they can take thousands of EKG traces at once and identify the damaged part of the heart in a couple of minutes rather than an hour. They have also integrated touch sensors in the balloon which means you know where it is making a good contact with the tissue, plus temperature sensors, and Radio frequency heaters. This means that the EKG sensors can be used to identify the problem, and then the heaters can be used to destroy it all in one session.

They have even applied the same technology to a glove so that a surgeon can take measurements of hard to reach areas of the heart while feeling it during an operation and they are working on other sensors to be used in other diseases in the rest of the body.

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