NASA Sensor Technology in Development to Measure Vital Signs

When undergoing medical treatment, monitoring things like blood pressure and heart rate usually means a variety of wires and sensors will be attached to a patient’s body. But thanks to technology developed at NASA, there might be a better way. A new biomedical sensor incorporating technology pioneered at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, OH, is being developed by a company called Endotronix for measuring blood pressure and heart rate.

Dr. Félix Miranda (background) and Dr. Rainee Simons investigate the miniature conductor/antenna on a Bio-MEMS sensor at NASA Glenn. (NASA)
The sensors are about the size of the head of a pin (1 mm wide and .5 mm thick). Crafted out of gold and silicone, each sensor also includes a multi-turn loop antenna, which means data collected from the sensor can be wirelessly transmitted to an external unit. Called Biomedical Microelectromechanical Systems, or Bio-MEMS, each sensor makes use of NASA patented radiofrequency technology.

Dr. Félix Miranda, a supervisory electronics engineer, and Dr. Rainee Simons, a supervisory physicist, both at NASA Glenn, initially were investigating the technology for potential use in space suits, as a way to remotely monitor astronauts’ health. Dr. Anthony Nunez, a cardiovascular surgeon and president of Endotronix, learned about the work at Glenn in 2006. Endotronix now holds the exclusive license for cardiovascular applications of the Glenn technology.

The cardiovascular sensors will operate by being implanted in the body of the patient. Each tiny unit doesn’t require a battery, which means the unit can last indefinitely in the body while causing less damage to surrounding tissue and lessening the risk of infection or toxicity. The device, manufactured out of biocompatible materials, operates by sensing the pressure that the heart or an artery creates when the blood flows by a membrane. It transmits data to a small, portable external reader, which can be worn by the patient or kept nearby for readings. This transmission occurs wirelessly, and the absence of a wire in the body also helps prevent risk of infection and other negative side effects.

Because the sensors are so small, they are not disruptive to the patients. All types of patients can potentially benefit from the device, from nursing home residents requiring intensive care, to active patients who wish to travel while still monitoring their health. The external readers are easy to use, allowing patients to take their own readings.

Companies have expressed interest in investigating the technology for other biomedical areas, such as general surgery, and bone, neck, and spine health. Other areas of human interest, like structural safety in bridges and buildings, could also benefit from this technology.

For more information, visit www.nasa.gov/topics/technology/features/tiny_tech.html.

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