Smartphones and armbands are helping people keep track of their heart rate and activity levels, but scientists have now taken wearable technology to the next level. Researchers have developed smart sutures that can monitor wounds, sending a wealth of data to doctors about how the healing is progressing.
The invention comes from engineer Pooria Mostafalu, Ph.D. and other researchers at Tufts University, Harvard University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who published details July 18th in the journal Microsystems and Nanoengineering. Inspired by threads used in wearable technology, such as smart shirts, the researchers wanted to see if this technology could help monitor a patient on a more intimate level.
The engineers started with cotton and synthetic threads, similar to what might normally stitch up a patient’s wound after a nasty fall. They then embedded electronics, tiny sensors, and certain types of thread to channel fluid, converting these simple medical threads into smart threads. The theory is that these threads would be in direct contact with a wound, taking measurements to monitor the wound’s condition in three dimensions, alerting the health staff of any potential problems. The researchers connected these threads to electronic circuits which could wirelessly transmit the information to a computer, smartphone, or other electronic device.
The researchers tested their device on laboratory rats, followed by traditional blood testing to confirm their measurements. These smart sutures measured health aspects such as strain on the wound, temperature, pH, and glucose levels at that location. Future devices could potentially help measure other physical or chemical aspects of the wound by incorporating different sensors into the same thread. By mixing in threads that allow fluid flow, the smart suture sensors can measure pH and other chemical factors further away from the stitched wound, which holds potential for analyzing chemicals in an entire organ.
Although others have developed promising sensors for medical use, the study authors see threads as having the greatest potential. As well using the threads on their own to suture wounds and surgical cuts, scientists could weave the threads together into two and three-dimensional shapes, better measuring what is going on in an entire organ or large wound.
The promise of glucose sensors in these smart threads could be helpful to diabetics. Currently, most diabetics must monitor their blood sugar levels regularly by pricking their finger. If doctors could instead implant a thread into these patients, it could potentially send a constant stream of blood glucose data to a computer or smartphone, without the pain. This would help alert the diabetes patients of any dangerous trends, such as dropping blood sugar levels, so they could take action to reverse the trend before fainting. Data from constantly monitoring blood glucose could also help doctors manage the disease, alerting them to any trends that would require adjusting insulin doses.
Smart sutures could help monitor wound healing, measuring strain as the wound closes and chemical properties of the wound area. Measuring chemicals around the wound could help alert doctors to potential problems, such as an infection, so they could correct the problem before it becomes worse. Similarly, smart bandages made of threads woven together could help monitor wounds that were not deep enough to require stitches. Orthopedic implants could incorporate the smart threads too, helping doctors monitor how patients adapt after surgery and looking for pressure or infection. The smart threads have the advantage of being relatively cheap and flexible, as well as safe for use inside the body.
Smart devices to monitor health are gaining popularity with consumers and health professionals. Devices like watches and armbands help monitor heartrate and estimate calories burned during exercise. Other newer devices include a thermometer that can measure temperature from a distance, without being invasive; a toothbrush that helps monitor a child’s brushing habits; a patch that helps monitor UV exposure, helping the wearer know when it is time to get out of the sun; and a belt that alerts the wearer when they need to get moving and get more exercise.