Using smart bandages to combat chronic wounds

Close-up of a smart bandage
This smart bandage could monitor and automatically treat wound healing in people with chronic wounds. © Wei Gao, California Institute of Technology

This electronic dressing could benefit people with chronic wounds in the future and literally save lives. The optical and electrochemical sensors built into it can monitor wound healing and automatically control treatment.

Chronic wounds include surgical wounds and pressure injuries, as well as diabetic and other ulcers. If these do not heal or heal very slowly, they can cause long-term problems. Many sufferers suffer from pain or depression. Sometimes the injured body parts have to be amputated. Chronic wounds are even fatal more often than expected. Only 70 percent of those affected survive the first five years. This means that chronic wounds have a worse survival rate than breast or prostate cancer.

But in the future, this smart bandage could provide a solution. Its electronics detect when the conditions in the wound change and then trigger an appropriate response. If a wound becomes infected or severely inflamed, for example, the sensors in the bandage measure corresponding molecular biomarkers in the wound fluid. Or they detect when the blood flow is disrupted or the temperature is increased. The smart bandage can then, for example, cause medication to be released from a built-in hydrogel reservoir. Or it emits electrical impulses to stimulate the cells in the injured tissue. The cuff thus helps to speed up wound healing. At the same time, it informs patients and doctors about the current condition via Bluetooth.

This stretchable high-tech bandage and other smart devices were developed by a team led by Wei Gao from the California Institute of Technology. As they explain, this not only helps patients, but also makes the treatment of chronic wounds significantly shorter and therefore cheaper. So far, however, the medical devices have only been tested on laboratory animals. It will therefore be several years before they are approved for humans and can be used in everyday practice.

The long-term goal of the medical and material researchers is to generate such smart dressings for a wide variety of wounds. “We are developing a new type of ‘cyber skin’ that can support wound healing and simultaneously measure and treat it,” says co-senior author David Armstrong from the University of Southern California.

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