Research

General scope

Our research is focused on bioelectrical phenomena and, in particular, on exploring the use of these phenomena for developing new methods and devices for biomedical applications. 

Currently our main research topics are in vivo electroporation, particularly for cancer treatments, and electrical stimulation for neuroprosthetics. 
 

Neuroprosthetics

To build interfaces between the electronic domain and the human nervous system is one of the most demanding challenges of nowadays engineering. Fascinating developments have already been performed such as visual cortical implants for the blind and cochlear implants for the deaf. Yet implantation of most electrical stimulation systems requires complex surgeries which hamper their use in less severe pathologies or in cases in which suboptimal, but less invasive, treatment alternatives exist. Nevertheless, probably the most crucial limitation of previously developed systems based on central stimulation units is that they are not adequate for applications in which a large number of sites must be individually stimulated over large and mobile body parts, thus hindering solutions for patients suffering paralysis due to spinal cord injury or other neurological disorders. A solution to these challenges could consist in developing addressable single-channel wireless microstimulators which could be implanted with simple procedures such as injection. In fact, such solution was proposed and tried in the past but it did not achieve satisfactory success as the developed implants were stiff and too large. Further miniaturization was prevented because of the use of inductive coupling and batteries as energy sources.

We are exploring an innovative method for performing electrical stimulation in which the implanted microstimulators will operate as rectifiers of bursts of innocuous high frequency current supplied through skin electrodes. This new approach has the potential to allow the development of ultrathin implants mostly built with flexible and stretchable materials. Because of such feature, and because of their intended functionality, we coined the name “Electronic Axons” (eAXONs) for these implants.

 

Electroporation

Electroporation, or electropermeabilization,  is the phenomenon by which cell membrane permeability to ions and macromolecules is increased by exposing the cell to short high electric field pulses. 

Electroporation is a dynamic phenomenon that depends on the local transmembrane voltage. It is generally accepted that, for a given pulse duration and shape, a specific transmembrane voltage threshold exists for the manifestation of the electroporation phenomenon (from 0.2 V to 1 V). This leads to the definition of an electric field magnitude threshold for electroporation (Erev); only the cells within areas where the electric field magnitude is larger than Erev are electroporated. If a second threshold (Eirrev) is reached or surpassed, the electroporation phenomenon will be too intense and cell homeostasis will be altered to the point of compromising cell viability which can finally result in cell death, either necrotic or apoptotic.

Reversible electroporation of living tissues is the basis for different therapeutic maneuvers on clinical use such as the in vivo introduction of genes into cells ("electrogenetherapy") and the introduction of anti-cancer drugs into cells of solid tumors ("electrochemotherapy"). Recently, irreversible electroporation has also found a use in tissues as a minimally invasive surgical procedure to ablate undesirable tissue with important advantages when compared to thermal ablation techniques.

A specific objective of our research is to develop new electrode arrangements, devices and methodologies for electric field management in electroporation therapies.

 

Irreversible electroporation (IRE) can safely ablate pancreatic tumors
(A. José et al. Cancer Letters, 2012, 317(1): 16-23)