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Once the field of wearable technology announces a new breakthrough, you can be sure that it is not only going to turn heads but will also be mind-blowing.The year 2017 alone has seen massive progress in soft and wearable sensor technology.One such technological wonder is a real-time healthcare monitoring and diagnosis sensor -- a breakthrough development in the research of experts from the National University of Singapore.This highly sensitive and ultra-thin novel sensor is made of a soft, flexible, and stretchable microfiber with a diameter equivalent to that of a strand of human hair.
According to the researchers, what makes this microfiber sensor unique is the fact that, unlike other current microfluidic devices using conductive liquid metals, it fits well on the skin and is also comfortable to wear.Professor Lim Chwee Teck from NUS' Department of Biomedical Engineering and lead researcher in this study claims that this novel microfiber sensor is hardly felt on the skin as it conforms quite well with the skin's curvatures.He also adds that despite it being extra tiny, the sensor's electrical conductivity and mechanical deformability is excellent, hence making it highly sensitive.
Prof.Teck also claims that they have been able to monitor real-time pulse waveforms and bandage pressure by applying the microfiber sensor.This sensor comprises a liquid metallic alloy within a soft silicone microtube.The researchers claim that this alloy acts as the sensing element.From the pulse waveform measured in real-time, a user can determine his/her heart rate, stiffness in the blood vessels, as well as blood pressure.
The researchers note that this sensor will come in handy to doctors monitoring vital signs on patients with heart and blood pressure problems.Currently, doctors require multiple and often bulky equipment that don't even give instant feedback.Prof.Teck states, "As our sensor functions like a conductive thread, it can be woven into a doctor's glove and track patient's vital signs in real-time." He adds that this will not only offer convenience but also save time for doctors.
Regarding blood pressure problems, this microfiber sensor could also come in handy to patients who have atherosclerosis, a condition where one's arteries thicken due to the accumulation of fatty streaks.These streaks if left unchecked may form plaques that block off blood flow leading to organ failure or even a heart attack.The NUS researchers claim that the novel sensor can help detect plaque before it is big enough to block off a blood vessel.The sensor does this by detecting the change in stiffness in the blood vessel caused by the plaque.
Currently, doctors use computerized tomography scans and magnetic resonance imaging to detect plaque in blood vessels.This means that the scans have to be done by qualified medical professionals which are obviously expensive and time-consuming.
Microfiber sensor for bandage pressure monitoring
According to an article published by the NUS team on the development of the microfiber sensor in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and Advanced Materials Technologies, this sensor can also be used in the management of venous ulcers.These ulcers occur when veins in the legs can't push blood back to the heart properly and are caused by poor blood circulation.
The NUS reachers are collaborating with the Singapore General Hospital to test on how the microfiber sensor could help in bandage pressure monitoring.Doctors control venous ulcers with compression therapy, which involves applying bandages with varying pressure on the patient's legs.The amount of pressure applied is crucial because if the bandage is too tight, it would lead to tissue damage.On the other hand, if it's too loose, it would be ineffective.
To help monitor the pressure applied to the bandage and get rid of the manual estimation used by health workers, the microfiber sensor can be used to provide an accurate and continuous measurement of the bandage pressure in real time.This will potentially help in improving the effectiveness of this treatment while also reducing the amount of time needed for the wound underneath to heal.The researchers are also optimistic that patients could use a microfiber sensor app in the future to track bandage pressure.The app could then help share the information with doctors who can then monitor how the treatment is progressing remotely.
Microfiber sensor commercialization
According to Prof.Lim Chwee Teck, other than healthcare monitoring, the microfiber sensor has a wide range of applications ranging from smart medical prosthetic devices to artificial skins.He adds that the research team has already filed a patent for the sensor while still working on its design to help improve its user-friendliness.
The NUS researchers also claim to be keen on exploring new applications of the device as well as finding commercial partners who can help bring the said sensor to market.
Thanks to this innovation, this team of researchers has already won the Most Innovative Award in the Engineering Medical Innovation Global Competition that was held in Taipei in Sept 2017.If this is any indication of the new wearable technology's potential for success, then this is a sure winner not only for the researchers but also for those needing its capabilities.