Tech & Science

Scientists develop a battery-free pacemaker that runs on heartbeats

Around 3 million people worldwide have had Pacemakers, or implantable medical devices (IMEDS) implanted and are leading healthy and active lives.

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Over the years, IMEDS have gotten smaller, lower powered, more flexible, and much more common. A drawback is that they still rely on bulky batteries that have to be changed around every 15 years due to their relatively short lifespan. Researchers from China and the US may have come up with a solution to this problem.

In ground-breaking research, the team found a way to harvest energy from a patient's heart to generate electricity form the movement of the heartbeats. The study was published in Nature Communications used pig hearts as they are very similar in size to human hearts.

The symbiotic cardiac pacemaker (SPM) was powered by an iTENG (implantable triboelectric nanogenerator) and was the first self-powered battery-free pacemaker implanted into adult pigs, according to Zhou Li, a professor in the School of Nanoscience and Technology at the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences.

“SPM is inspired by the biological symbiosis phenomenon involving interaction between different organisms living in close physical association — such as nitrogen-fixing bacteria with leguminous plants — which is a fancy and interesting idea," Li told Digital Trends. "The SPM converts biomechanical energy from the heart beating to electricity for powering the pacing module [as it sends] pulses. The abnormal heart can be corrected by these pulses, and the recovered heart will provide more energy for SPM.”

During trials, Zhong Lin Wang from the Georgia Institute of Technology in the US wrote that the energy harvested from the subjects' hearts was higher than the amount needed for human pacemakers. This makes the battery free pacemaker able to be implanted for the lifespan of the patient without having to undergo further surgeries for battery changes.

"There is still a long way to go [before the device can be used in humans," Li told Digital Trends. "Some technical challenges need to be solved."

The current device would have to be implanted through heart surgery that is more invasive than for current pacemakers, so reducing the size of the iTENG is essential. Further research may allow the device to be powered from a different muscle, Tim Chico at the University of Sheffield told New Scientist.

The ground-breaking research into self-powering medical devices could also be used for other battery-powered medical tech devices like neural stimulators, muscle stimulators, drug delivery systems, and even more according to Li.

This opens up a whole host of possibilities for new types of medical devices and makes them a lot safer to use by reducing further surgeries to change batteries. The future of medicine is literally just one heartbeat away.

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