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UBC Reports | Vol. 51 | No. 3 | Mar. 3, 2005

Implantable Medical Devices Promise Better Life

Tiny gadgets could spare diabetes patients the pain of pricking fingers

By Brian Lin

A UBC mechanical engineer is embarking on a multi-disciplinary project that could spare diabetes patients from ever pricking their fingers again.

For decades, diabetes patients have been drawing small amounts of blood regularly in order to monitor their glucose level, a procedure that is often painful and can be particularly tough on children or the elderly.

Now Mu Chiao, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Applied Science and Canada Research Chair in MicroElectro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS), has set his sights on creating a tiny, implantable device that could be used to monitor chemical levels such as glucose in diabetes patients or deliver regular doses of medication such as hormones from inside the body.

At no larger than 2 millimetres, these tiny chips would come fully equipped with highly sensitive screening and distribution mechanisms, and their own power source, all wrapped in material that prevents rejection by the body.

In fact, some of them would be so inconspicuous that they could be left in the body once they’ve accomplished their missions.

Originally from the southern Taiwanese port city of Tainan, Chiao was trained in the Sensor and Actuator Center at University of California, Berkeley, a hotbed for MEMS and nano-technology research.

One of the hottest areas of mechanical engineering, MEMS technology has been used to make sensing devices that control airbag deployment in cars and switching devices in optical telecommunications cables.

For Mu, however, bio-medical applications of MEMS have a stronger attraction.

“I want to make a positive impact on people’s daily lives,” says Chiao, whose research could mean fewer physician visits and a better quality of life for patients with chronic diseases.

Chiao has already pioneered a technique called post-packaging frequency tuning, which uses pulsed laser emissions to tune the frequency of micro-devices after they’ve been assembled and sealed. “The process allows more precise manipulation of the devices while preventing damaging the parts during assembly,” says Mu. But that’s just a piece of the puzzle.

“There are some big challenges that have kept microscale medical devices from being a viable product on the market,” says Chiao, “We need to come up with a long-lasting and reliable power source and safe packaging that allows the right kind of chemicals to go through, to enable screening.”

To that end, and with funding from Canada Research Chairs Program, Canada Foundation for Innovation and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, Chiao has rounded up top researchers in pharmaceutics, nanotechnology and physics at UBC. But working among such a wide range of disciplines poses its own challenges.

“People in different fields often speak different languages -- technically,” says Chiao. “But everyone working on this project shares a passion for creating something that will greatly improve people’s lives, and that makes the hard work worthwhile.”

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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