• 02.14.11

Heart Attack or Vicious Burrito? Embedded Sensor Knows

MIT’s perfecting an embedded bio-sensor that would reveal to doctors if you’ve had a heart attack–even if you thought the culprit was too much Tabasco.

heart MIT

MIT’s perfecting a technology that would see an embedded bio-sensor reveal to doctors if you’ve had a heart attack–even if you couldn’t feel it. It could also warn of early cancer signs, and detect other diseases.


The MIT team, working with researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital, has been working to counter one odd medical fact: About 30% of all heart attacks result in the patient feeling absolutely no symptoms. While you may think this is good news, the fact remains that damage has been done to the sufferer’s cardiovascular system, and the un-sensed attack could hint of a far more serious heart event in the future.

The idea of the study is to develop a tiny implant for humans that’s clever enough to detect three specific proteins that show a spike in their concentration in the bloodstream after a heart attack. If the implant is “triggered,” and even if the patient feels absolutely nothing wrong with their heart, then doctors would be able to quickly work out if an attack had actually occurred without any invasive procedures, and move to pharmaceutically or surgically reduce the risk of another more damaging attack.

A small round implant, about 2mm thick and 8mm across, is embedded in the patient under the skin. It contains iron oxide particles which have been treated with antibodies coded for a particular biomarker, a biological substance that indicates a particular biological event–in this case, the markers are the three proteins related to a heart attack. The disk has a partially permeable membrane which lets the proteins through, where they then bind to the antibodies on the iron particles. This changes the properties of the particles so when they’re “scanned” using an MRI machine, it’s possible to quickly detect that a heart attack has happened.

Three different sensors, one for each of the tell-tale proteins, have been tested in mice and found to be successful. Not only did they detect an attack, but they were able to report how severe the heart damage may have been. It’s the first time a sensor similar to this has been able to detect three different biomarkers at the same time, and the team notes it’s possible to modify the sensors to detecting other forms of heart disease, glucose levels in diabetes sufferers, and even the early presence of cancer. In the future it may be possible to add in the ability to detect bacteria, or viruses that are otherwise hard to check for, and possibly even track if tumor cells have migrated through a person’s system.

We imagine going for an annual implant/checkup test where the older sensors (which have a limited lifespan as the antibodies degrade) are scanned for indicators, and then replaced. It could transform your annual general checkup into a far more potent medical diagnostic/preventative affair, and turn your M.D. into more of a Dr. McCoy than a Dr. House.

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