Draper’s tiny bio-MEM tech goes from a head-scratcher to a no-brainer

Draper MEM

A bio-MEM drug delivery device developed by Draper Labs

Draper was into bio-MEMs before they were cool.

Micro-electro-mechanical systems, also known as MEMs, are tiny electrical machines that are common in consumer electronics and automotive sensors. Their presence in medical technology, however, is a much newer phenomenon.

In the last 10 years, as bio-MEMs technology has gone from being a head-scratcher to being a no-brainer, Jeffrey Borenstein has had a front-row seat.

"It definitely wasn’t cool when we got started. It was definitely a curiosity at that time," said Borenstein, who is director of the Biomedical Engineering Center at Draper Laboratory. "Now they’re saying, ‘Of course.’"

Borenstein in the lab

Borenstein in the lab

The Cambridge, Mass.-based non-profit laboratory has been working on a slew of MEMs-driven medical technologies, including endoscopic imaging tools, sensing devices and drug delivery and organ assistance devices.

One of the most commercially viable works in progress are blood filtration pathways to replace the long tangle of tubing conventional artificial lung machines use to pump blood.

"With MEMs you can build these very smooth paths at the micron scale so that the blood flows much more smoothly. If it does that, then it’s less likely to clot," Borenstein explained.

These devices aren’t MEMs themselves, but MEM technologies are developed and stamped into bio-friendly materials to create the capillary-like paths.

Draper’s pathways are biomimetic, meaning they are designed to match actual biological structures. MEMs etch tiny blood pathways with a precision that isn’t possible with machine-shop tools, making the process of blood oxygenation safer and more efficient.

The pathways also pose less risk of clotting than conventional machine tubes, eliminating the need for patients to take anti-coagulants (a big risk in themselves).

"Alleviating coagulation is a major goal," Borenstein said.

Draper has been working on the blood pathway technology since 2006. So far, the devices have only been tested in the lab using cow’s blood, but Borenstein thinks they could be commercially viable in the next five years.

Draper’s bio-MEM research focuses on blood filtration devices about half the time, Borenstein said. The lab also develops implantable drug-delivery devices, tissue regeneration scaffolds, diagnostics and sensors. The research is currently funded by the National Institutes of Health, but strategic partnerships from private industry may be right around the corner.

"Everyone’s interested in using the technology," Borenstein said.

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