Can you please provide a brief refresher on your project and its goals?
Our goal is to design and fabricate an ingestible biodegradable device that is able to help diagnose eosinophilic esophagitis (EoE), a painful inflammatory disorder of the esophagus that is caused by exposure to food allergens. EoE is a prominent esophageal disease that affects more than 150,000 Americans each year including many children. EoE reduces quality of life by causing feeding problems, vomiting, and abdominal pain in children and dysphagia and food impaction in adults. EoE can be treated by reducing exposure to specific food allergens by implementing elimination diets. However, the efficacy of these therapies requires accurate, timely, and longitudinal diagnosis. EoE is difficult to diagnose because the symptom and pathophysiology do not necessarily align. Also, EoE is currently diagnosed with biopsy followed by histology which is painful for patients and expensive for the healthcare system. In this project, we are designing and fabricating an ingestible sensor that can detect EoE without the need for biopsy. We are leveraging principles of flexible electronics and biomaterials to create these devices.
What was most exciting or unexpected that you learned during the project?
While this project is still in progress, we have made some exciting discoveries related to novel materials for our devices. Using common edible materials, we were able to create structural materials with diverse mechanical properties that can act as either a soft hydrogel or a rigid bioplastic. We have characterized this material and designed processes to integrate flexible electronic sensors with various form factors. This is a versatile and promising material that has a lot of potential as a structural material for EoE sensors and other types of ingestible electronic devices in the future.
Did you encounter any roadblocks that you did not anticipate?
Designing flexible electronics is always challenging. There are many unforeseen problems that can arise during the fabrication and testing of devices. One particular challenge is to design a process that can integrate rigid brittle electronic components with soft, flexible, edible structural materials in such a way that preserves their device performance at high yields. We designed some materials processing techniques related to sol-gel processing and transfer printing that allows us to integrate sensors with ingestible structural materials with high fidelity.
What are the biggest takeaways from your project?
We definitely learned a lot with respect to the new material that we are working with. We also dedicated some time to develop some in vitro tissue models of EoE and characterize their bioelectronic properties. In short, we can produce tissue constructs with simulated active EoE that we can use as a testbed for future sensor designs.
What are your project’s next steps?
After our successful PHDA project, we are currently making some final modifications to our sensor design before moving on to human testing with our clinical partner, Kevin McGrath, professor of gastroenterology at the University of Pittsburgh and Director of the GI Endoscopy Lab at UPMC.