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Vanishing electronic medical implants

Image of resorbable electronic circuit in its first phases of dissolution
[Photo by Fiorenzo Omenetto]

Imagine a biomedical implant (designed to help treat surgical infections or stimulate bone growth, for example), disappearing into the body after it is no longer needed.

That's exactly what scientists have recently developed -- a new class of electronics capable of degrading into their environment. The research appears in the September 28 issue of the journal Science.

Unlike today's electronic devices, which are designed to last forever, the transient circuits developed by Suk-Won Hwang and colleagues at University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign disappear after a programmed amount of time.

The technology could be useful in biomedical implants to help treat surgical infections or stimulate bone growth. The researchers crafted electronic circuits from cocoon silk, thin sheets of porous silicon and magnesium electrodes -- materials all capable of disappearing into their environment.

They tested the device as a biomedical implant in mice, using it to deliver a bactericide drug to surgical wound sites in the animals. Before implantation, the research team programmed the device to resorb or degrade after a certain amount of exposure to biofluids. (Resorption triggers could theoretically also include heat, radiation, pH and other environmental factors.)

Examining the mice after three weeks, the researchers observed reduced infection at the surgical wound site and only faint residues of the implant. While these results apply specifically to the use vanishing electronics in medical applications, the devices could also potentially be used to curb electronic waste.