St. Olaf College | News

Team works to develop wireless probe for pacemakers

Erick Marigi '14, Guttu Maskalo '14, and Shane Allen '14 at work in their lab.
St. Olaf students (clockwise, from top left) Guttu Maskalo ’14, Erick Marigi ’14, and Shane Allen ’14 are part of a research team working to develop a wireless probe that could change the way devices like pacemakers work.

A St. Olaf College research team is working to develop a wireless probe that could change the way devices like pacemakers operate.

“We’re trying to develop a technology that can not only send wireless signals to these implantable devices and receive them, but also, in the long run, power up these devices,” says Erick Marigi ‘14, a St. Olaf McNair scholar and member of the Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI) team working on the project.

The team, led by Associate Professor of Biology Kevin Crisp, is working to develop probes that will send and receive signals wirelessly using three computer software systems. They’re hoping this will replace the relatively heavy and clunky pacemakers, most of which still use wires and large batteries.

“Wires can sometimes become displaced and cause infections,” St. Olaf McNair scholar and CURI student Guttu Maskalo ‘14 explains. “And the batteries generate heat, which can damage the tissue around them. They’re also large and getting them replaced — in the case of pacemakers — requires major surgery.”

The medical community has become fascinated with the idea of a wireless probe, but there isn’t a lot of background or reference materials to model it on.

“You’ll see some articles if you do a search, but everyone is still trying to get that probe,” Marigi says.

The probes would act as a little radio frequency tag, or something similar to a barcode. Researchers would send signals from a source to this probe, which will power up the device. Since the human body has natural currents running through it, the body could also send a signal to the probe that it would be able to receive. Using computer software, researchers would be able to separate the signal and determine how the body is functioning based on these natural currents, or bioelectrics.

Crafted by hand

The wireless probes appear to be promising, but the process to construct them is time-consuming and labor-intensive.

“We have to build the probes by hand,” St. Olaf CURI researcher Shane Allen ‘14 says. “And they’re only about this big.” He indicates its size by pushing his thumb and pointer finger as close as possible.

A team member spent the first week under a dissection microscope, using solder and micromanipulators to push a tiny needle into the solder to create a single probe.

“Hopefully it’ll take less time in the future,” Allen says, emphasizing how difficult it is to make something so small.

With practice, the team is now able to create these probes in just 1-2 hours.

Associate Professor of Biology Kevin Crisp
Associate Professor of Biology Kevin Crisp

Crisp began working on this project last spring in collaboration with University of Minnesota Associate Professor of Neuroscience David Redish and his lab, as well as St. Olaf students Samantha Clare ‘13 and Pha Lor ‘13. The team also received support from St. Olaf Piper Center for Vocation and Career Associate Director of Entrepreneurship Roberto Zayas.

While the team did make some progress with the probe, they realized their model was not optimal and had to reconstruct it. That meant months of research going down the drain. Yet the students didn’t let that stop them.

“Because St. Olaf students have a natural tenacity and a willingness to challenge themselves, they are very good candidates for real-world projects with real-world applications that are interdisciplinary in nature and have an element of entrepreneurship and innovation,” Crisp says. “I think it’s something that differentiates our students from a lot of their colleagues at larger institutions.”