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Creators are calling it a “living pharmacy” in your body. It is an implantable device to regulate sleep cycles and enhance health.

Northwestern biomedical engineer Dr Jonathan Rivnay and his team is built part of the wireless, wearable device in their lab.  They hope the device will help control the body’s circadian clock – the system that regulates sleep.

“The device should be about the size of the first couple knuckles of your pinky, but really thin and the idea is that can be implanted just under the skin,” Rivnay said. “The state of the art right now is using melatonin. And even when it’s used right melatonin can only help you shift about one hour per day. So that means if you are traveling eight time zones or if you are shifting your work schedule by eight hours, it could take you a week to adjust to that.”

It works by housing a tiny implant pre-loaded with engineered cells that, when exposed to a light source, will make and release biomolecules to promote sleep at the right time.

Rivnay said the implant has a sleeve over it and it communicates with the external hub.

“You would envision that once you want to start using the device you would tell the external hub, ‘I need to shift my time zone by eight hours,’” he said. “It would figure out based on your circadian rhythm exactly when and how often to deliver that biomolecule. It’s essentially a living pharmacy. You can produce a biomolecule on demand without needing to carry pills or anything like that.”

The team plans to test the implant in human trials but first have to perfect the model in the lab.

“This is a big problem for service members being deployed overseas. And of course we want our first responders and medical personnel to be in top shape when they are performing,” Rivnay said. “But it can be a big problem for the population, so we want to start with people who have a direct need for it right now.”

Beyond controlling circadian rhythms, the researchers believe this technology could be modified to release other types of therapies potentially treating pain and disease. They’ve received a $33 million federal grant to pursue the project. The Northwestern scientists are working with other labs across the country including Rice and Carnegie Mellon universities.