Optical fiber delivers light into body then biodegrades

(Credit: Getty Images)

A new flexible, biodegradable polymer fiber may make it easier to deliver light into the body, which typically requires the implantation of an optical fiber made of glass.

The ability to deliver light into the body is important for laser surgery, drug activation, optical imaging, diagnosis of disease, and in optogenetics, the experimental field in which light manipulates the function of neurons in the brain.

“Near infrared light might be able to penetrate a few millimeters to a centimeter, but that is not enough to see what is going on.”

“The problem is that visible light can only penetrate to a certain depth, maybe hundreds of microns,” says Jian Yang, professor of biomedical engineering at Penn State. “Near infrared light might be able to penetrate a few millimeters to a centimeter, but that is not enough to see what is going on.”

Currently, people use glass fiber to get light into biological tissue at depth, but glass is brittle and isn’t biodegradable. It can also break and damage tissue if implanted.

Yang previously invented a polymer based on citrate, a naturally occurring key ingredient in metabolism, which he developed as a general platform for biomedical applications, such as biodegradable bone screws for bone fixation, scaffolds for tissue engineering, and nanoparticles for delivering time-released therapeutic drugs.

Now, he is collaborating with Zhiwen Liu, professor of electrical engineering, using the citrate-based polymer to create a step-index optical fiber for light delivery inside the body.

A step-index fiber has a core material that transmits light and a cladding that protects the core and keeps the light from escaping. Yang’s lab makes and tests the polymer and then takes it to Liu’s lab to turn into a fiber. Once they have tested and fine-tuned the fiber, Yang’s lab implants the fiber in biological tissue for testing.

“The present work demonstrates the first citrate-based flexible biodegradable polymeric step-index fiber,” says Dingying Shan, a PhD student in Yang’s group and co-first author of a new paper in Biomaterials.

polymer fiber optic cable glowing red
(Credit: Chenji Zhang/Penn State)

“The use of the citrate-based polymers enables ultrafine tuning of refractive index differences between the core and the cladding layers,” says co-first author Chenji Zhang.

Because the core and cladding have identical mechanical characteristics, the optical fiber can bend and stretch without the layers pulling apart, as can happen with dissimilar materials. The two materials will also biodegrade at similar rates in the body, without harm.

“We believe this new type of biodegradable, biocompatible, and low-loss step-index optical fiber can facilitate organ-scale light delivery and collection,” Shan says. “And that it will become an enabling tool for diverse biomedical applications where light delivery, imaging, or sensing are desired.”

DNA ‘cages’ deliver drugs with zap of light

“This new type of fiber creates a transparent window for peeking into a turbid tissue, and can enable new opportunities for imaging,” Liu says.

As a preliminary step, the team first measured light propagation characteristics of the fiber and then used this information to demonstrate image transmission through the fiber.

“Because the material is nontoxic and biodegradable, the citrate-based fiber could be left inside the body for long periods without the need for a second surgery to remove it,” Yang says. “In addition to sensing and imaging, we can add therapeutic chemicals, drugs, or biological molecules for disease treatment.”

The National Institutes of Health supported the work.

Source: Penn State