For years, scientists and engineers have struggled to design electronics that could conform to the human body as it moves and flexes.
But when a University of Illinois engineer, John Rogers, was experimenting with shaving down silicon to smaller, thinner threads in 2004, he discovered the material, which is used for computer chips and circuitry, could stretch and bend in unexpected ways.
"If you look at it under a microscope, it's like, 'Holy cow, this is an accordion made out of silicon!' " Rogers said. "It was pretty obvious to us at that point that there was something pretty valuable here."
And now a Cambridge firm that Rogers cofounded is poised to deploy its first wave of products based on the stretchable circuit technology he pioneered. The company, MC10 Inc., is developing flexible electronics for a variety of applications, from the medical world, where its circuits can more closely and precisely monitor heart conditions, to athletics, where its sensors track vital signs and can even detect possible concussions.
And key to MC10's mission is making devices that are not intrusive or unwieldy, so consumers and patients will be more willing to accept them. Body sensors it plans to release in 2013, for example, are about the size of a postage stamp — a little more than one inch on each side, with the silicon circuitry embedded on a piece of film just 3 millimeters thick that adheres to the skin. MC10 said that later generations of sensors will be even smaller and thinner.
"Being able to empower consumers with devices that provide really important information, but also are not aggravating and can seamlessly integrate into their life, is a really big part of what we're doing," said MC10 cofounder Ben Schlatka.
Beginning next year, MC10 will roll out its first consumer products.
One is a patch that serves as a hydration monitoring system for runners, cyclists, and other athletes to use on a smartphone or a high-tech watch to monitor fluid levels. Another is a sensor inside a football helmet that can signal when a player may have suffered a concussion.
Such applications can go beyond sports, too. Similar on-the-body sensors from MC10 could ultimately be used to track insulin levels, blood pressure, or exposure to the sun.
On the medical front, MC10 engineers are working with a team at Massachusetts General Hospital to test an inflatable catheter that has a high number of electrodes installed on its balloon-shaped end — two to three times the number found on similar catheters. This will provide physicians with "significantly more data" as they diagnose and treat various heart conditions, said Dr. Roozbeh Ghaffari, director of medical development and one of MC10's cofounders.
The catheter is still in animal trials at a lab at Massachusetts General, but Dr. Moussa Mansour, the cardiologist overseeing the project, said it could ultimately lead to better care for patients with atrial fibrillation, a heartbeat irregularity that affects millions of people.
Doctors can already treat the condition, Mansour said, but their understanding of the heart's activity is limited by the amount of information they collect from the small number of electrodes available in current devices.
"There's a need for high-density mapping," Mansour said.
Body sensors have been slowly making their way into consumer-level applications in the past few years. Smartphone owners, for instance, can download applications to monitor their heart rate and sleep cycle through a phone's microphone and motion-sensing technology.
At the elite level, more sophisticated technology similar to that employed by MC10 is being used to help competitive athletes train and perform at higher levels. The governing body for elite athletics in the United Kingdom, for example, joined with leading universities to start an organization devoted to integrating bio-sensing with other technologies for maximizing athletic performance.
And the past few years have seen an explosion in the number of biotech firms pursuing patient-oriented electronics, said Gautam Jaggi, a lead biotechnology analyst at the accounting and consulting firm Ernst and Young.
"We're seeing more and more technologies that are aimed squarely at patients," he said. "They're empowering patients with more information and more control over their health care.
Companies see a convergence of several forces, Jaggi said: Consumers, living in the information age of smartphones and tablets, are keenly interested in information about their own bodies. And with health care costs ballooning, providers see prevention techniques as essential to reining in costs. Chronic diseases bring a particular financial cost, estimated at 75 or 80 percent of health costs in the United States.
"I've been studying this industry for a while, and this is probably the most fascinating shift I've seen," Jaggi said. "It really is changing health care and approaching health care fundamentally differently."