Stretchy Optical Fibers Implanted in Your Body Could Sense Disease

wearable technology MIT medtech
The stretchy optical fibers that bend and twist with the body without breaking down can serve as a long-lasting implants and monitor a range of medical conditions. MIT

A new form of stretchy fibers that can be implanted into the body are offering hope for diagnosing diseases at the earliest possible stage.

Researchers from MIT and Harvard Medical School developed the biocompatible fibers using hydrogel—an elastic, rubbery material made mostly out of water.

"Optical fibers are usually made of rigid glass and plastic, which is much stiffer than [the] human body," Xuanhe Zhao, an associate professor at MIT, tells Newsweek. "Implants of such optical fibers in the body, for example in the brain, may cause incompatibility and damage of tissues. We developed highly stretchable and biocompatible optical fibers based on hydrogels with similar rigidity and physiological properties as human tissues."

Once implanted in the body, the optical fibers would be able to bend and twist with a person's movements without breaking. As well as detecting disease, the fibers could also be used to deliver therapeutic pulses of light.

Using light to activate cells, such as neurons in the brain, is known as optogenetics and is an increasingly popular area of research. Fiber optics are already used to trigger neurons but the properties of materials currently used make them potentially dangerous for patients.

The researchers also imagine that the optical fibers could be implanted or fitted along the length of a patient's arm or leg to monitor for signs of improving mobility.

"We may be able to use optical fibers for long-term diagnostics, to optically monitor tumors or inflammation," says Zhao. "The applications can be impactful."

The research is published in the journal Advanced Materials.