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"Medchanical" -- The Discovery Files

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A team of researchers led by Biomedical Engineering Professor Sam Sia at Columbia Engineering has developed a way to manufacture microscale machines from biomaterials that can safely be implanted in the body. Working with hydrogels, which are biocompatible materials that engineers have been studying for decades, Sia has invented a new technique that stacks the soft material in layers to make devices that have three-dimensional, freely moving parts.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

It just gelled.

I'm Bob Karson with the Discovery Files -- new advances in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation.

You're in for a checkup of your valves, manifold, rotors and pumps. Not at your mechanic, but your doctor. Implantable micro medical devices have just taken a big leap forward thanks to a research team at Columbia University engineering.

Most current implantable devices have static components rather than moving parts. The Columbia team developed a technique that lets them stack soft, biocompatible "hydrogel" material in layers -- to create fully-functional, three-dimensional micro machines -- with working gears, levers and other mechanical parts. They're called, "iMEMS" -- implantable microelectromechanical systems.

The team has now modeled and demonstrated an internal drug-delivery system to treat bone cancer in mice. The device was implanted adjacent to the cancer and required only one-tenth of the usual dose of chemo meds to be effective.

iMEMS show promise for applications ranging from pacemakers to sensors to soft, miniaturized robots that communicate wirelessly from within.

Implantable microelectromechanical systems -- I guess it's the difference from me being in therapy -- to the therapy being in me.

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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