Preemies unplugged: Premature babies are often covered in wires. A Northwestern scientist’s new invention could change that.
John Rogers, eminent materials scientist and engineer, professor and entrepreneur, sits sandwiched behind an oversize desk in his office, tucked into a corner of Northwestern University’s engineering school. The space is crowded with low-level clutter that includes a wall-swallowing bookcase full of awards and medals and prizes for scientific achievement. But pride of place goes to a little stack of petri dishes within reach of his right hand.
In each dish is a wafer-thin slice of the future: A flexible, lollipop-shaped device not much thicker than a piece of tape can be implanted in the body to provide electrical stimulation to nerves — and then dissolve, electronics and all, once it’s no longer needed. A small translucent patch can stick to an athlete’s or kidney or stroke patient’s arm to harvest and chemically analyze sweat, then transmit the data to a smartphone. A soft, stretchy bandage will, one day soon, monitor vital signs in preterm babies — no wires necessary.
Rogers holds each one up to the light with a characteristic squint, gently replacing them in their dishes. This is his work, each device representing years of labor in the lab, endless iterations, multiple collaborations, and clinical testing all driven by a central idea.
“John’s core statement,” says Tony Banks, research physicist and Rogers’ second-in-command in the research group as well as a close friend, “is that he wants to change the world. That’s kind of his thing.”
Rogers and his research partners will publish a paper in the journal Science, detailing their work on the new, Band-Aid-like monitor for babies in neonatal intensive care units, or NICUs. The monitors will transform the landscape of NICU care, doing away with the wires and cords attached to the tiny patients, replacing them with tiny electronics that bend and stretch and delicately attach to fragile skin. Eventually, the technology is likely to change the face of premature baby care in countries around the globe — even poor countries. Which is why, when Banks says changing the world has always been Rogers’ plan, it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch.
Northwestern, where Rogers took up his post in 2016, is betting on him in a big way, allowing him the chance to bring his engineers and scientists into direct collaboration with doctors and medical researchers in a unique, multidisciplinary group. As the Louis Simpson and Kimberly Querrey Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and Biomedical Engineering and Neurological Surgery, he has a healthy endowment, his own Center for Bio-Integrated Electronics, and a spanking new, presumably less-crowded home for his labs and offices, being built next door to the current one.
The lab, which is planned to open in June, is a topic of some excitement around Rogers’ office. But so is the new Gatorade commercial, which features Serena Williams wearing a special sweat patch developed by the Rogers group. The patch chemically analyzes sweat to allow an athlete to customize a sports drink to meet her body’s needs. Watching the NBA All-Star Game at home, Rogers notes that he spotted the ad three times. “That was pretty cool!” he says.
John Rogers is a superstar. Which doesn’t mean he can’t be starstruck. Or that Gatorade, or even Serena Williams, can’t figure into his plan to change the world. Or that his qualifications as a world-changer are rooted solely in cerebral achievement. “John is such a great listener,” says Dr. Amy Paller, chair of dermatology at Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine. “He really wants to get everybody’s viewpoint. He is somebody who cares and somebody who loves to pull other people in to broaden his ability to get it right.”
The last line on his CV eloquently notes one personal achievement: Eagle Scout, member of Troop 301. “The thing about John is, he really is a genius,” says Banks, echoing something you hear repeated again and again by people who know and work with Rogers, “but he’s also just a regular guy. He can talk to scientists at the highest level. But he can also talk to a Boy Scout.”
“He has this great way of looking at the future,” says Banks, “which research to go after and what’s important. There have been some times when I didn’t agree, but then ... he’s usually right.” Banks and Rogers have been working together since 2003. They became close friends, Banks says, over shared Southern roots (Banks is from Alabama) and a shared way of thinking about problems. “Having John around,” Banks says, “I know there’s almost nothing that I’ve ever seen that we couldn’t figure out.”
Still, when Rogers shared his thoughts about using their electronic devices in medicine, Banks hesitated. “We were just hanging out one day, and he said, ‘You know, we should do more medical devices.’ I was like, ‘Medical devices?!’ I was very shy about it. I don’t know anything about medicine, really. But he saw that there were a lot of things that could be done to change the world with medical devices.”
Rogers began exploring collaborations with medical schools around the country, taking on projects like creating a more accurate way of mapping the brain to guide surgeons performing surgery on epileptic patients. Or an inflatable balloon covered with tiny sensors that can document precise areas of malfunction in the heart. As the work increased, he began a search for a new research home, one where he could “embed with a medical school” to create a new kind of research group that would combine the talents of top research doctors with the engineering and scientific talent of his team.
“It has been a very unique opportunity,” says Dr. Steve Xu, medical director at the Center for Bio-Integrated Electronics and a former postdoctoral fellow in the group. “To deeply understand the problem we’re trying to solve, as well as the technology we’re trying to develop. We can see both sides of the story.”
The move to Northwestern allowed Rogers and his family — his wife, fellow scientist Lisa Dhar, whom he met when both were grad students at MIT, and their 16-year-old son, John — to return to the Chicago area, where Dhar grew up. And even before Rogers was officially in place, it set the stage for what may be his most impactful project so far.
In 2015, Paller, a renowned expert in pediatrics and neonatal care, as well as dermatology, heard Rogers talk about the membranes he had been working with that could bond to and interface with skin for medical monitoring purposes. “He mentioned the possibility of moving into intensive care units, and babies in particular,” she says, “and that was all I needed to hear.”
Rogers began a collaboration with Paller on a new kind of monitor for premature babies — he envisioned monitors that could gently bond with delicate skin and wirelessly provide blood pressure, oxygenation level, temperature, and heart and respiratory rates to the medical teams who care for babies. Of course, realizing that dream wasn’t easy. “Getting it to work turned out to be way harder than we thought,” says Rogers. “There are a hundred different details you have to work out, and it took a long, long time.”
The NICU is a harrowing world. Typical patients weigh just a few pounds, have delicate, injury-prone skin that is 60 percent thinner than the skin of full-term babies, and their hearts may slow or their lungs fail at any moment.
Yet, current monitoring systems are imperfect — from the cascade of wires that hinders breastfeeding and skin-to-skin contact from mothers to the lack of a noninvasive solution to continuously monitor blood pressure. “I knew firsthand how much of a problem these wires were,” says Paller, “but how necessary they were. We knew this project would take years of research and testing, but it would really be the prototype of something that is just transformational in terms of how babies in neonatal care units are cared for.”
“It’s kind of becoming this ‘Star Trek’ thing.” says Dr. Aaron Hamvas, the chief of neonatology at Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine. “One day we’ll have babies with just a little patch on them.”
After a year of NICU testing at Lurie Children’s Hospital, Rogers and his team are in the final stages of proving that the new monitors deliver the same quality of data as current monitors.
Later this spring, they will begin their next phase — thanks to a partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, tens of thousands of the new monitors will eventually be deployed on newborns and mothers in Africa and Asia, with the first wave scheduled for Zambia, starting in April.
Bringing his work to the patient population that needs it is a key metric of success for Rogers. In the developing world, Rogers’ technology can provide monitoring of babies who might otherwise have none, at a much lower cost and ease of operation than current technologies.
“It’s fantastic,” says Hamvas. “And eventually, from a very broad, grand perspective, you can see putting one of these monitors on a baby in Africa, and you’re sitting here in Chicago helping to monitor that baby and letting people there know if the baby’s getting into trouble.”
Placing one of his NICU sensors back in its petri dish, Rogers stops, and smiles. “Every time I see a picture of one of these on a baby, I think, yeah, that’s what we need to be doing.”
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John Rogers, eminent materials scientist and engineer, professor and entrepreneur, sits sandwiched behind an oversize desk in his office, tucked into a corner of Northwestern University’s engineering school. The space is crowded with low-level clutter that includes a wall-swallowing bookcase full of awards and medals and prizes for scientific […]