Canan Dagdeviren has always been interested in science. At a very young age, this Turkish native tried to find the atom by cutting stones into pieces. Her supportive father introduced her to electron microscopy, where she realized that was an impossible task, but confirmed her passion for the field. The pursuit also took a personal tone when she learned that her granddad had passed away from heart failure at the age of 28.
“I promised myself, I would do something for heart patients in the future and I set my dream age as 28, which was when my granddad passed away.”
In February, the University of Illinois Ph.D. student was the lead public investigator of a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) magazine, which detailed how her research group had developed a new class of biocompatible devices to harvest and store piezoelectric energy directly from the motion of the heart, lung and diaphragm. These devices, which are soft and flexible with low bending stiffness are the first of its kind, nano-generators that convert mechanical energy from internal organ movements into significant energy to power medical devices. This breakthrough technology promises to replace the pacemaker as the regulating source of an irregular heartbeat and be used to store energy to keep vital organs functioning in the event of their failure.
Dagdeviren’s contributions, which were recognized April 29 with the $20,000 Illinois Innovation Prize, come at the age of 28.
About the Device
The energy harvester devices consist of materials that are very active, which means when they are strained or stressed (stretched or bent) they create current and voltage. They can be used as sensors, actuators, etc., can be placed directly on the heart or lungs, and be programmed to dissolve over time. That is done in part by changing the thickness of the encapsulation layer. Unlike normal pacemakers, which can store up to 0.3 microwatts of power, these devices have a multilayer configuration, which can create four times the wattage, lessening the need for additional surgeries.
“It’s like a normal modern pacemaker,” Dagdeviren explained. “It has two needles which go to your heart vessels on the wall. It doesn’t pace your heart all the time, just when your heart beat is not regular, which means if your heart does not need any stimulation, we can actually store this energy and use it whenever we need it. This is a baby step, a back-up for the pacemakers, but in the future it won’t be a back-up, it will be the real system.”
The Early Road
“Every aspiring female scientist likes to follow the path of Marie Curie, the first female Nobel Prize winner,” Dagdeviren said. “I actually read more about her husband (Pierre), who, with his brother, discovered the piezoelectric phenomena. It’s a very magical material.“
Dagdeviren and her dad did an experiment during a picnic where they rubbed a pair of quartz stones together to see the sparks, which represented energy.
“Although I had this idea, I didn’t know yet how to pursue it,” she said.
Dagdeviren formally began her research into piezoelectric materials while earning a bachelor of science degree in physics (Hacettepe University) and a master of science degree in materials science and engineering (Sabanci University) in Turkey. As an undergrad, she read an article by University of Illinois professor John Rogers, realized he was doing great things in this very realm, and set a goal to work under Rogers as a Ph.D. student. After becoming the country’s first Fulbright Scholar in her field, Dagdeviren came to the United States and with Rogers in the audience, gave a presentation at a Materials Research Society Meeting in Boston in 2008. The following year, she fulfilled her goal to enroll at Illinois and work under Rogers.
Although Rogers had originally asked Dagdeviren to work on a different project she convinced him to allow her to continue her work on piezoelectric materials. She had been successful in making similar devices, but they were bulky and too thick to be placed on organs or even skin.
Part of John Rogers’ Team
Rogers holds a Swanlund Chair and joint appointments in materials science and engineering, chemistry, bioengineering, mechanical science and engineering, and electrical and computer engineering. He is an undeniable superstar in the field. His research group’s more recent array of accomplishments include a digital camera with a design inspired by a bug’s eye and a 3D electronic pericardium.
“Professor Rogers accepted my project and has been very supportive throughout my Ph.D. studies,” said Dagdeviren, who said one of the secrets to his success is the way he runs his operation and the trust he has in the members of his team.
“He has a huge team, but he has his own way to manage all the things in a clever way,” she said. “He’s a good listener then tells his opinion, but it is still your call whether you follow him or not. He is very open-minded and at the same time, he can see the future. If I email him, I get a reply in a maximum of five minutes. When I send progress files to him, he gives immediate feedback. All these responses and continued support made my progress very fast.”
Under Rogers’ guidance, Dagdeviren continued to refine her idea in the lab. She had to prove her latest iteration could both withstand the strain of the beating heart and produce energy. In order to do that her team of five spent 24 straight hours working in two-hour intervals bending the devices by hand and then hooking it up to an LED light. The experiment proved positive results and led to the purchase of an instrument that could make any future tests electronically.
The next step was to test these flexible piezoelectric devices on animals. She worked with surgeons at the University of Arizona Sarver Heart Center to insert them in the proper location. She designed every experiment, which was done on cows, sheep and pigs, and successfully found the right location on the internal organs to provide the positive results she was looking for.
“I call myself a material scientist and engineer candidate, but I have read a lot about the heart, including books that my father and grandma gave me,” Dagdeviren said. “ I obviously don’t know as much compared to a heart surgeon, but as an engineer, I think I have quite a bit of knowledge about the heart. At Arizona, I learned how to perform medical sutures to the chest. I showed the surgeons how to place the device on organs and was the one that was controlling the DAQ system. It was a complete team effort and very nice interdisciplinary work.”
To continue to feed her motivation, she asked Dr. Slepian, a heart surgeon and the Director of Interventional Cardiology at Sarver Heart Center, if she could tag along when he met with a few patients.
“Some of them were 70 years old, but some of them were 7,” she recalled. “These people need help. I believe with advanced engineering technology, medicine will be more personalized in the future. It will serve people not only with self-powering devices, but ones for sensing, monitoring or early detection of disorders.”
Having successfully proven the concept on animals, the next step will be to use these flexible piezoelectric devices on humans. Although it will take some time to get approval to use internally, Dagdeviren believes it can be further perfected by using them on human skin in places that move a lot, such as a knee or the sole of a foot. She notes that similar technology is used on pedestrian walkways to power traffic lights in Japan and sees the technology immediately benefitting those with limited access to power sources, such as military personnel in the field.
Dagdeviren will defend her Ph.D. thesis on June 6, finalize her course work in July and move to Boston in August to work as a postdoc under Robert Langer at MIT. She will take with her the synergy she has felt at Illinois.
“For me, leaving here is emotional in some sense,” she said. “I believe every person I have worked with has provided a different way of thinking, different memories, and different dreams. When you combine all these things, it has helped create more innovative solutions.
“However, I am creating my own world to make something new and important for the next generation,” she concluded. “People have a limited amount of time to implement their dreams so the only thing we can do is find what we’re good at and work on it. I know what I am good at and am building my career on that. This is my way of helping humanity.”