Waterloo alumnus and student develop biodegradable chip to detect postsurgical complications

A University of Waterloo alumnus and student have developed a biodegradable chip that’s implanted into the body during surgery to detect postsurgical complications. About the size of a shirt button, the biochip identifies issues arising after surgery, such as internal bleeding or infection, then sends that information to the patient’s doctor via a transmitter patch located on the exterior of the body.

The biochip, developed by Waterloo alumnus Youssef Helwa and nanotechnology engineering student Amr Abdelgawad, could revolutionize the postsurgical-care market where no comparable device exists. The only way to currently detect complications is to use imaging such as CT scans or MRI after a patient is showing complication symptoms. The new biochip, licensed under the startup NERv, will allow doctors to be proactive in postsurgical care by assessing and treating complications before the patient experiences symptoms.

“In some cases, such as septic shock from infection, postsurgical complications are life-threatening and early detection and treatment could mean the difference between life and death,” says Helwa, NERv CEO. “Doctors are currently only reacting to complications once their patients show symptoms, which could be days, but with NERv’s biochip they could be alerted within minutes and begin treatment right away.”

Once the critical postsurgical period has passed (after about one month) the biochip, made of novel biodegradable materials, disintegrates inside the body.

The development of the biochip was funded in part by a $60,000 award from AC JumpStart. Funded by FedDev Ontario and delivered through the Accelerator Centre in partnership with University of Waterloo, AC JumpStart provides early stage technology startups with the seed capital, mentorship, and market-readiness tools needed to build a business in today’s knowledge economy. 

The innovative biochip stems from Helwa’s experiences with his mother, a surgeon who worried about postsurgical complications in her patients.

“Since there is a 15 per cent chance a complication could occur within 24 hours of surgery, and 50 per cent of those go undetected within the first seven days, post-surgery was a stressful time for my mother,” says Helwa. “The biochip removes the guesswork by sending a notice of time, severity, and location of the complication to the doctor as soon as it’s detected, and a notice to the patient to go see their doctor so treatment can begin.”

Helwa and the team at NERv are establishing partnerships with hospitals, biomedical companies, and medical specialists interested in the biochip. The team hopes to expand the application potentials of the chip to detect more complications, such as developing bacteria like E.coli, and have the chip ready for Food and Drug Administration approval within the next year.

Technical drawing of the biochip

Technical drawing of NERv's biochip