Scientists have developed an edible battery from the skin pigment melanin that could revolutionize treatments for diseases such as cancer. In a presentation to the National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society, the team of researchers from Carnegie Mellon University described how their battery could be used to power devices that travel through the bloodstream to target cancerous tumours.
The biocompatible, non-toxic batteries are being made from naturally occurring melanin pigments (such as those found in our skin, eyes, and hair) and are being housed in 3D printed capsules. This is yet another step on the journey toward more effective and targeted treatments.
We have covered a number of the drug delivery and targeted cancer therapy. From tiny particles that can roam your body looking for tumours to bacteria that can be programmed to detect cancer, significant progress is being made in the treatment of cancer.
Lots of these medical devices used in diagnosis and treatment are battery driven, but toxicity remains an issue. For example, it is possible for an ingestible camera to get stuck somewhere and become difficult to dislodge. The task for associate professor Christopher Bettinger and his team was to develop an ingestible battery and make it from chemicals the body is used to.
So how could they achieve this? The researchers began working with naturally occurring melanins and other organic compounds. Melanin, Bettinger says, essentially does what a battery does. This is what inspired the scientists to investigate it as a viable option.
Bettinger says there was a number of reasons for selecting melanin. Not only do melanin pigments help protect the body against the sun's ultraviolet radiation, they also remove charged particles which can damage cells.
The scientists have been working on different battery prototypes that use melanin pigments at either the positive or negative terminals, different electrode materials and cations like copper and iron which also occur naturally in the body.
At present, their battery can power a 5 milliWatt device for between 10-20 hours using 600 milligrams of active melanin as a cathode. While this may sound relatively low, it would be enough to power a drug delivery or sensing device.
“For decades, people have been envisioning that one day, we would have edible electronic devices to diagnose or treat disease. But if you want to take a device every day, you have to think about toxicity issues. That’s when we have to think about biologically derived materials that could replace some of these things you might find in a RadioShack.”
The team are also exploring other options. In addition to the melanin-based batteries, they are also working on a pectin based battery.
Bettinger said he hopes to publish his latest results before the end of the year. He is due to speak at a major chemistry conference in Philadelphia this week, so we may learn more about the innovative research over the next few days.
His research is supported by the National Institutes of Health and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
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