Smart bandages, pills target patient care, sports performance

Devices ranging from smart bandages to smart pills can address health-care aspects including wound management, medication compliance, and sports performance, based on separate research initiatives at the University of South Australia and startups in Redwood City, CA, and Cambridge, MA.

Some of the research raises ethical and legal questions—for example, what are the consequences of embedding into patients nanosensors that can transmit biometric data to tablets and smartphones? And should sports fans have access to a star athlete's biometric data—a possibility that one observer suggests could take fantasy sports to a new level?

Wound management

Of the recent research initiatives, the efforts of the researchers at the University of South Australia researchers would seem relatively free of any ethical or legal concerns. These researchers have developed three techniques for wound management—two based on smart bandages. The first incorporates thin-film polymer sensors into a dressing material, which changes color when the sensors detect temperature or pH-level changes. The sensors offer advantages over methods that employ potentially toxic dies or other chemicals. The researchers are investigating the possibility that smart dressings could automatically release medication in response to changes in the wound environment.

The second technique being investigated at the university researchers also employs sensors incorporated into a dressing. In this case, the dressing transmits changes in moisture level in the wound or changes in pressure level in a compression bandage over a Bluetooth or similar wireless interface to a smartphone.

The third technique the University of South Australia researchers are working on involves not a smart bandage but rather a point of care biosensor. Medical staff replacing a traditional bandage just drop a tiny amount of wound fluid into the biosensor and wait for results—a simple process that can be used every time a dressing is changed. It makes it unnecessary for medical staff to rely on their eyes, noses, and intuition to assess whether a wound is healing adequately.

Professor Nico Voelcker, Deputy Director of the University’s Mawson Institute, and his team have been working on the projects since being approached by the national Cooperative Research Centre for Wound Management Innovation to bring their expertise in biosensors into the medical field, according to The Lead.

The Lead also reports that chronic wounds (which refuse to heal after several months) are becoming a significant health burden around the world, affecting up to half a million people per year in Australia alone and imposing $3 billion in annual costs on the county's healthcare system.

Should sports fans monitor athlete's biometrics?

A bandage-like prototype called Biostamp is the focus of MC10, a tech startup in Cambridge. The device, a 2-square-inch patch, sticks on any body part and records biometric data including heart rate, hydration level, muscle activity, and sleep patterns.

The Boston Globe quotes NBA veteran Grant Hill, one of nine athletes on the company's sports advisory board, as saying, “To touch [the Biostamp], to go through a demonstration, you realize this is pretty amazing stuff. You almost wish you were a rookie again so you could take advantage of what the future has in store.”

Shira Springer of the Globe quotes Dr. Kim Blair, founding director of MIT's sports innovation program, as touting “a wearable revolution.” Writes Springer, “Bulky chest straps and large wristbands may soon be part of the past, looked upon like flip cellphones among smartphones. In the near future, it may be commonplace for athletes to wear Biostamps or smart T-shirts with embedded sensors during practices, games, and even sleep.”

Springer notes that MC10 won't divulge exactly what data the first Biostamp will monitor, but she suggests that in the not too distant future you might see a field-goal kicker's heart rate displayed on a stadium Jumbotron as he prepares for a big kick.

This last possibility raises concerns among athletes on the MC10 advisory board about who owns the data collected. “When it comes to very personal, biometric data,” asks Springer, “where are the lines between fan engagement and player improvement and privacy? And who draws those lines?”

Springer writes, “Catapult marketing manager Boden Westover sees opportunities to take fantasy sports to a new level with data from wearables, as well as 'compare what you did playing pickup with your friends with what Tony Parker is doing in the NBA playoffs.'”

And apart from potential disclosure of data to millions of fans, will biometric data be employed in contract negotiations between athletes and team owners? These questions remain to be answered.

Smart pills and ethics

Although sports professionals might be used to, if not necessarily comfortable with, having personal data broadcast to the public, private citizens may not be, which raises ethical questions with regard to biodata collected by a smart bandage or smart pill.

The latter is discussed in a Saturday Washington Post article, where reporter Ariana Eunjung Cha begins by writing, “Each morning around 6, Mary Ellen Snodgrass swallows a computer chip. It’s embedded in one of her pills and roughly the size of a grain of sand. When it hits her stomach, it transmits a signal to her tablet computer indicating that she has successfully taken her heart and thyroid medications.”

Snodgrass, age 91, began taking the pills with the encouragement of her son, who works at Proteus Digital Health, the Redwood City, CA, company that makes the technology. The edible chips in the pills activate on coming into contact with stomach acids and transmit a 16-digit code to a patch worn on the torso, from which it can be forwarded to tablet or smartphone and onto the Internet, where it can be shared with family members and healthcare professionals.

Writes Cha, “George Savage, a co-founder and chief medical officer of Proteus, said studies show that 50% of patients do not take their medications as prescribed and that allowing doctors to see whether patients actually take the drugs—and their reactions to the medicine—could help physicians figure out better treatments.”

Next up could be nanosensors that live in the bloodstream and serve as early-warning beacons that send news of an impending heart attack to a smartphone.

But despite the potential benefits, Cha writes, “…the idea of putting little machines into the human body makes some uncomfortable, and there are numerous uncharted scientific, legal, and ethical questions that need to be thought through.” She quotes Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, as saying, “There’s something very troubling about a chip being placed in a person that they can’t remove.”

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