The use of electronics in measuring and monitoring human bodily function is already widespread in medical care, and personal data apps are proliferating. But how well can these electronics adapt to the dynamism of our bodies? After all, we come in all shapes and sizes, and our internal organs move and grow.
A new technology is being developed to respond to this challenge: stretchable electronics. This could lead to many more applications in the health industry, and enable better monitoring and more targeted and appropriate treatment.
The design – pioneered by materials scientist John Rogers of the University of Illinois, USA, and being commercialized by a company called MC10 – mimics the natural elasticity of the skin. The malleable product is 50-micrometers ‘thin’, with an adhesive polymer back, very similar in appearance to a medical plaster or band-aid, allowing for organic freedom of movement. The interface can expand and contract in line with organic bodily shifts, thus rendering the body almost unable to sense it, while retaining its technological integrity and performance. The potential scope for utilizing this technology is vast: it has already been used to detect chemicals in sweat, and for monitoring heart and muscle activity.
The technology combines the use of new stretchable polymers, gold electrodes, nanotechnology and smart phones to combine the medical technology with the constantly evolving information technology sphere, allowing individuals to monitor their own symptoms or progress. The stretchable hardware itself is cheap to produce, utilizing basic components such as electrodes and rechargeable batteries (depending on its role). The data collection and analysis is tackled later when the information is sent to smartphones and/or computers.
A merit of this innovation is that it will allow for the coordination of data from numerous areas on the body simultaneously, thus illuminating correlations previously not seen before.
The stretchy electronics could move with skin, arteries, and organs. This would allow new surgical and measuring methods and could lead to such products as skin patches that monitor whether the wearer is sufficiently hydrated, or inflatable balloon catheters equipped with sensors that measure heart problems.
Could such data lead to new understanding of the correlation between mental and physical wellbeing? The team believes so, and is already exploring whether the technology can be used as an “objective” measure of depression.
In time it might lead to more specific monitoring in other organs, including the brain. A development partner of MC10 is Reebok, which suggests a use in sports technology, with more refined monitoring of the human body in sport.
The relatively low cost of this technology makes for a broad spectrum of potential applications. L’Oreal, the French cosmetics giant, is currently licensing MC10’s technology and are developing the ‘My UV Patch’, a disposable sun sensor able to pair with smartphones. Along with its partners, L’Oreal has managed to make production costs so low that they plan to give away several million sun sensors later this year as part of a marketing campaign.
Whether brands will go beyond marketing campaigns and find ways to make equitable distribution a sustained reality remains to be seen.
Early detection of symptoms and pre-emptive monitoring could lead to a reduction in healthcare costs. There could also be interest from insurance companies, monitoring clients to adapt their health plans – but to whose benefit?
By Sarah Lloyd and Omar Gawad
Image: Steve Jervetson / Flickr