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Silk optics find multiple uses in human body
Dec '12
Tufts University School of Engineering researchers have demonstrated silk-based implantable optics that  offer significant improvement in tissue imaging while simultaneously enabling photo thermal therapy, administering drugs and  monitoring drug delivery. The devices also lend themselves to a variety of other biomedical functions.

Biodegradable and biocompatible, these tiny mirror-like devices dissolve harmlessly at predetermined rates and require no surgery to remove them.

The technology is the brainchild of a research team led by Fiorenzo Omenetto, Frank C. Doble Professor of Engineering at Tufts. For several years, Omenetto; David L. Kaplan, Stern Family Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Biomedical Engineering chair, and their colleagues have been exploring ways to leverage silk's optical capabilities with its capacity as a resilient, biofriendly material that can stabilize materials while maintaining their biochemical functionality.

The technology is described in the paper "Implantable Multifunctional Bioresorbable Optics," published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences online Early Edition the week of November 12, 2012.

"This work showcases the potential of silk to bring together form and function.  In this case an implantable optical form -- the mirror -- can go beyond imaging to serve multiple biomedical functions," Omenetto says.

Turning Silk into Mirrors

Microscopic image of a silk optical implant embedded with gold nano particles. When implanted in tissue and illuminated with green laser light, the particles converted light to heat, turning the reflector into a thermal therapy to control bacterial infection or kill malignant cells.

When implanted in tissue and illuminated with green laser light, the particles converted light to heat, turning the reflector into a thermal therapy to control bacterial infection or kill malignant cells. To create the optical devices, the Tufts bioengineers poured a purified silk protein solution into molds of multiple micro-sized prism reflectors, or microprism arrays (MPAs).

They pre-determined the rates at which the devices would dissolve in the body by regulating the water content of the solution during processing. The cast solution was then air dried to form solid silk films in the form of the mold. The resulting silk sheets were much like the reflective tape found on safety garments or on traffic signs.

When implanted, these MPAs reflected back photons that are ordinarily lost with reflection-based imaging technologies, thereby enhancing imaging, even in deep tissue.

The researchers tested the devices using solid and liquid "phantoms" (materials that mimic the scattering that occurs when light passes through human tissue). The tiny mirror-like devices reflected substantially stronger optical signals than implanted silk films that had not been formed as MPAs. 

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