More than 1.5 billion people worldwide live with chronic pain. But managing a chronic health condition can be even more difficult when its symptoms may not be physically felt. Implantable pressure sensors have been used to help physicians monitor conditions like chronic lung disease, brain swelling, and more. But these sensors come with risks, particularly when they need to be surgically removed. Now, University of Connecticut researchers have developed such a sensor that’s actually biodegradable, which would allow materials to be safely dissolved into the body rather than dealing with the risks of an unnecessary surgery.

UConn researchers created a small and flexible sensor made of FDA-approved materials that are already used in sutures, grafts, and other kinds of implants. The sensor includes two layers of piezoelectric Poly-L-lactic Acid (PLLA) film and molybdenum electrodes. While molybdenum has been used for countless purposes over the last 200 years, it’s commonly used along with polylactic acid in all kinds of medical applications. When pressure is applied to the PLLA, it emits a small electrical charge, which can be captured and transmitted to other devices for physician approval.

Current pressure sensors on the market contain potentially toxic components and must be removed after they’ve served their purpose. Not only does this force patients to endure another surgery that could leave them vulnerable to subsequent infection, but it also extends their recovery time. These newly developed sensors are just as accurate as others currently on the market, says the UConn research team, but they don’t pose these same risks for patients. Instead, they’ll simply be absorbed into the body once they’re no longer needed.

In addition, these devices could even be used in tissue generation, due to the electrical stimulation they provide. The sensors could even be used to monitor glaucoma, bladder cancer, or heart disease.

Currently, the team’s patent application for the biodegradable sensors is pending. While it’s only been tested on mice as yet (and has proven successful), researchers are keen to explore the possibilities.

Thanh Duc Nguyen, the paper’s senior author and an assistant professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering for the Institute of Regenerative Engineering at UConn Health, told UConn Today: “We are very excited because this is the first time these biocompatible materials have been used in this way. Medical sensors are often implanted directly into soft tissues and organs. Taking them out can cause additional damage. We knew that if we could develop a sensor that didn’t require surgery to take it out, that would be really significant.”