Wearable technology isn’t just about gadgets. Scientists are developing a new generation of fabrics and materials with health applications from pain relief to fighting infection.
Wearable technology has been used for years in devices such as performance monitors for exercise and sports, and in head-mounted displays for portable computing. But researchers have been making major progress with other forms of wearable technology, such as light-emitting bandages, infection-resistant hospital gowns, and safety shoes for people with health problems.
The EU-funded PLACE-IT project has combined phototherapy and textiles in order to use light to create health monitors and treatments for medical conditions such as backache, neck and wrist pain.
Researchers are using LEDs or foil-based organic LEDs combined with stretchable materials and fabrics to measure or treat medical conditions.
Applications include a flexible light-based monitor that wraps around a patient’s arm and detects how well their kidneys are working.
Blue light bandages
They’ve also made ‘blue light bandages’, now commercialised by Dutch technology firm Royal Philips. These are bendable patches that can relieve backache through the use of therapeutic light.
‘It is really promising technology, but nobody really knows what the future will look like.’
Koen van Os, Philips Research
‘(With) this phototherapy device, you not only want to sense something from the body, but also give something back, through the healing mechanism of blue light,’ said Koen van Os, a senior scientist at Philips Research, who coordinated the project. ‘So it’s not only about the sensor, it is about more benefits than that.’
The blue light stimulates the release of nitric oxide, which results in increased blood flow in the area being treated. It also provides relief by gently warming the site of the pain.
While many applications are under development for sensors and monitoring, PLACE-IT goes one step further in that it also plays a role in treatment. ‘It is really promising technology, but nobody really knows what the future will look like,’ Van Os added.
Improving health is a major motivation for the MYWEAR research project too. The 10-member consortium has developed wearable systems to monitor health indicators such as heart rate and respiration, as well as pressure on the sole of the foot for use in clothing for elderly, obese, diabetic and disabled people.
The system includes sensors attached to sportswear or work clothing that can connect wirelessly to a data management system that monitors continuously, and can even detect falls.
‘This can give medical specialists or a medical centre the possibility to monitor, for example an ageing user’s sporting activity,’ said Antonio Diterlizzi, MYWEAR coordinator and the chief executive of Italian footwear company BASE Protection.
Members of the MYWEAR consortium are testing their tracking and monitoring systems in sporting activities in Portugal at present.
MYWEAR is also developing a system to produce footwear that modifies the density of different areas of the soles, customising these to the needs of people with weight-related health problems. A manufacturing system for the customised safety footwear is being tested in industrial conditions for its flexibility in dealing with the needs of specific users.
The developers have applied to patent the system, and Diterlizzi believes products could be on the market within a year or two.
Taking a novel approach to improving health at the nano level, the EU-supported SONO project aims to transform textiles into tools to fight infection, particularly in hospitals.
SONO is developing a roll-to-roll material coating system to make antibacterial textiles, impregnated with copper oxide and zinc oxide nanoparticles, for use in hospital gowns, staff uniforms and bedding.
Professor Aharon Gedanken, who coordinated SONO as head of the nanomaterials laboratory at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, said the project aimed to help reduce infections acquired by patients while being treated in hospitals.
Metal oxides work by disrupting the cell membranes of bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus and Klebsiella pneumoniae. Tests on patients wearing and using the treated textiles show significantly lower levels of infection than other patients using the normal textiles in a hospital setting.
The technique developed by SONO is to embed zinc oxide or copper oxide nanoparticles in the textiles in such a way that they remain in place even through many high-temperature laundry cycles.
The method used is called sonochemical treatment. The textile is placed in a liquid containing the nanoparticle ingredients. High-strength ultrasonic waves create bubbles in the liquid, and when these collapse implosively, they create minute jets that effectively fire the nanoparticles at high speed into the surface of the textile thread.
‘It is a unique property of the sonochemical process that it is embedding the particles into the fabric in such a good way that it cannot be removed,’ Prof. Gedanken said.
‘And even after 65 cycles of washing at high temperatures, these coated fabrics show an excellent antibacterial effect,’ he added. ‘And the bacteria-killing properties are not only effective against regular bacteria, but our partners have found that they are effective in killing six drug-resistant bacteria that occur in hospitals.’
The technology has already been licensed to two companies – one in North America, where products are pending approval from the US Food and Drug Administration – and another, which has the rights to the technology for the rest of the world.
Further research includes the possibility of using the sonochemical processes to improve the sun protection factor of clothing by incorporating sun-blocking chemicals such as zinc oxide into the textiles.
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