One can state that bioelectronics is quite an old scientific research area although the actual term, bioelectronics can be traced back to the mid- 1970s. The first attempts to integrate biology and electronic devices have been associated to medical development in for example the development of the electrocardiograph. Electrocardiograph is the recording of the electrical activity of the heart or field of radiology, where for example magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computed tomography (CT), and positron emission tomography (PET) have made possible to identify and treat diseases or physical injuries. On the other hand visions that refer to the “cyborg appearance” have been also attached to the development of bioelectronics both by scientists (lately) and science fiction (a bit earlier on). (Walker at al 2009, Katz 2006, McGee 2008, Cass 2007).
Bioelectronics application areas are diverse and as Katz (2006) indicates can include the area of:
·Homeland security applications,
As bioelectronics itself is a multidisciplinary research area and furthermore integrated to the research areas of cognitive sciences, nanotechnology or neurotechnologies, the possible application areas are infinite and numerous. At the moment development of bioelectronics focuses on medical or personal health care and well-being applications and solutions but the future visions also include use of bioelectronics in most imaginary ways. For example, bioelectronics is thought to be an important building block for cyborgs or for establishing immortal physical body (McGee 2008). In the following examples we’ll try to sketch diverse application areas of bioelectronics. They cover areas of interest with concepts of bioelectronics as being within you, with you or around you (Varma 2008).
i. Environmental monitoring and homeland security (Biosensing)
Bioelectronic noses (sensing device) (also Göpel 1998). “Of the five human senses, the sense of smell is least understood by scientists and engineers. Odors can be simply described as chemicals carried in the air. The scientific challenge is to develop a sensing system capable of detecting trace amounts of chemicals that are associated with a particular class of odor. The electronic NOSE (Natural Olfactory Sensor Emulator™) platform project investigates the use of a sensing system along with an artificial neural network to distinguish specific chemicals from certain odors. An exciting application of the e-NOSE is to determine the physiological status of shock and trauma patients by monitoring their breath for volatile organic compounds. Experiments are being conducted on the e-NOSE to examine improving sensor performance through design and material selection, characterizing the sensing of various compounds, and developing a neural network that can identify the presence of specific chemicals by analyzing the electrical signals from the sensor array. Future research breakthroughs in the e-NOSE platform can have important applications in environmental monitoring and homeland security”.
ii. Homeland security applications (biometrics, forensics)
(Katz 2005, NCBES 2010). “There is a significant need for advancements in DNA typing for forensics applications. In particular, a backlog of over 800,000 DNA samples remains untested throughout the nation at the state and federal level. Research groups are beginning to develop miniaturized devices targeting DNA analysis for forensics applications. New lab-on-a-chip devices that can perform rapid DNA analysis will help address this backlog, for example by allowing law enforcement officials to conduct testing at the scene of the crime. Lab-on-a-chip systems require much smaller sample volumes than traditional DNA analysis 22 protocols and the amount of sample handling required is minimized by incorporating processing procedures, thus reducing contamination and chain of custody issues.” (Walker et al 2009, p.21).
iii. Medicine/Health care/Well-being
Biosensors for measuring human physical parameters: “C3B researchers are working pertinaciously to develop an implantable biosensor for monitoring lactate and glucose levels. Funded by the Department of Defence, the goal of this platform project is to develop a temporary implantable biosensor with wireless transmission capabilities. Packaging a dual sensing element biochip into the biosensor poses significant engineering challenges. Experiments are being conducted to investigate the amperometric response of the biochip to glucose and lactate, the biocompatibility of hydrogels used for coating the biochip, and the biochip’s performance in laboratory animals.”
vi. Point-of-care diagnostics
“Recent advances in lab-on-a-chip technology allow new systems to be developed that can provide diagnostic information in a handheld device. The most popular commercial example of this is the i-STAT blood gas analyzer, (www.i-stat.com), which provides information on patient blood samples in a handheld unit. Point-of-care (POC) devices are being developed that can analyze patient samples for a variety of molecular biomarkers. Applications demonstrated include detection of circulating tumor cells, activation of signalling pathways associated with malignancies, chemical and biological warfare agent exposure, detection of food poisoning, and the detection of influenza.” (Walker et al 2009, p.23).
v. From eliminating the side effects of chemotherapy to treating Alzheimer’s disease, the potential medical applications of nanorobots are vast and ambitious. In the past decade, researchers have made many improvements on the different systems required for developing practical nanorobots, such as sensors, energy supply, and data transmission.
Definition and Defining Features
The current vision of the area of bioelectronics formulates bioelectronics as a multi-facet scientific and technological area that includes electronic (or optoelectronic) coupling of biomolecules, or their natural or artificial assemblies, with electronic or optoelectronic devices (Katz 2006, Katz 2005). It has been defined that bioelectronics aims: “at the direct coupling of biomolecular function units of high molecular weight and extremely complicated molecular structure with electronic or optical transducer devices. Alternative and new concepts are being developed for future information technologies to address, control, read and use information. This requires the development of structures for signal uptake, transduction, amplification, processing and conversion.” (Göpel 1998, p.723). The interfacing of biomaterials and electronic devices will be used to: “transduce chemical signals generated by biological components into electronically (or photonically) readable signals, or to activate the biomaterials by applying electronic (or optical) signals, thus resulting in the switchable/tunable performance of the biological components.” (Katz 2006, p.1855). The bioelectronic systems can be used to develop sensing devices and to develop biofuel cells (i.e. implantable biofuel cells for biomedical applications, self-powered biosensors, autonomously operated devices, etc.). (Katz 2006).
Furthermore it has been stated that adding vision and development of nanotechnology to the combination of biotechnology and electronics will emphasize even more a major driving force in the research and development of novel materials or information technologies which is miniaturization of devices and systems to the nano-scale (i.e. nano-objects, such as nanoparticles, quantum dots, carbon nanotubes, nanorods, etc.) (Katz 2006, Göpel 1998, Cass 2007).
Research on the properties of cells and their interactions with the environment has made possible new forms of integration and interaction between biomaterials and electronic systems. Bioelectronics is promising for medical devices (implants, biosensors for monitoring purposes) but it also has lots of wider developmental opportunities for different areas. Applications include nanorobots, biological computers, biosensors, biochips, implants able to communicate with nerves, artificial stimulation of nerves, artificial touch, and artificial organs.
-Miniaturisation: When new technological solutions are getting smaller and smaller but still having more computational power than supercomputers 50 years ago, we are reaching visions of nanotechnology.
-Invisibility: Miniaturisation of technology makes invisibility possible. It is now more possible to see how and what technology is utilised in particular contexts. As bioelectronics can in the future be even more invisible, for part of our lives the technology will be in some sense a much more unnoticeable part of our everyday lives.
-Technology as part of human being (within/with/around). Bioelectronics will be integrated in our lives very deeply. Already you can have bioelectronic solutions that are either inside human beings, used as wearables or that are surrounding us without anyone else than the “user” or “controller” themselves knowing about these technologies.
-Monitoring everything we do/are. Bioelectronics makes it possible to monitor every aspect of human life and various environments in invisible ways.
-Treatment of previously uncured diseases or injuries. Bioelectronics represents new solutions for previously uncured diseases or injuries. In that sense they are just as a new medicine for treatment of human beings.
-Control over your body and mind. With bioelectronic applications it might be possible to even control individuals remotely.
1900 – Integrating biology to electronics
1950 – Establishing strong “bioelectronical” research and practical landscape, especially for medical applications
1970 – Emergence of bioelectronics as a term
2010 – Strong emphasis on development of bioelectronical science
2010 – Implementation of various biosensors for various purposes. Strong investments for further development of research area (i.e. bionanotechnology).
Relation to other Technologies
Bioelectronics is closely related to nanotechnology, biotechnology and electronics as it is a clear convergence of the said technologies. It also seems to be as an enabling technology for applications that are commonly described in relation to affective computing, human-machine or ambient intelligence. Quantum computing could also be seen as an enabling technology for biocomputing which is also mentioned as an application area for bioelectronics.
Dehumanising factors. McGee (2008) points out that bioelectronics is one of the most important enabling technologies that can affect the current meaning of being human. She states, that: “ In the future, if it becomes possible both to clone an individual and to implant a chip with the uploaded memories, emotions, and knowledge of the clone’s source, a type of immortality could be achieved” (p.208).
Göpel, W. (1998). Bioelectronics and Nanotechnologies Biosensors and Bioelectronics, Vol.13, No. 6, September 1998 , pp. 723-728(6). Elsevier.
Göpel, W., Zieglera, Ch., Breerb, H., Schildc, D., Apfelbachd, R., Joergese J. and Malaka R. (1998). Bioelectronic noses: a status report Part I. Biosensors and Bioelectronics. Vol. 13, Issues 3-4, 1 March 1998, Pp 479-493. Elsevier.
Katz, E. (2006). Bioelectronics. In Electroanalysis Vol.18, No.19-20, Pp. 1885-1857
Willner, I. and Katz, E. (eds) (2005). Introduction. Bioelectronics: From Theory to Applications Wiley-VCH, Weinheim, Germany 2005.
McGee, Ellen (2008). Bioelectronics and Implanted Devices. Medical Enhancement and Posthumanity. In The International Library of Ethics, Law and Technology. Vol. 2. Springer Netherlands. Pp. 207- 223.
Walker, G.M., Ramsey, J.M., Cavin, R.K., Herr, D.J.C, Merzbacher, C.I., Zhirnov, V. (2009). A Framework for BIOELECTRONICS – Discovery and Innovation. Bioelectronics roundtable report. Retrieved 2 June, 2010, from www.src.org/trc/bio/…/E003426_roadmapping_framework.pdf
Zyga, L. (2007) Virtual 3D nanorobots could lead to real cancer-fighting technology. Retrieved 8 June, 2010 from http://www.physorg.com/news116071209.html.
The Integrated Bioelectronic Research Laboratory (IBR) at UCSC (UC Santa Cruz) http://ibr.soe.ucsc.edu/?file=kop1.php
The Center for Bioelectronics, Biosensors and Biochips at Clemson University. http://www.ces.clemson.edu/c3b/index.html
Research group of Bioelectronics & Bionanotechnology at Clarkson University http://people.clarkson.edu/~ekatz/index.html
National Centre for Biomedical Engineering Science (NCBES), National University of Ireland, Galway, Ireland. http://ncbes.nuigalway.ie/bioelectronics.aspx
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