Let your clothes take care of you
What if your clothes could let you know when to visit the doctor? Scientists in Europe are currently devising smart fabrics that can provide an assessment of the wearers state of health. Embedded within the fabric are numerous sensors constantly checking your vital signs. Should any danger signs be detected, the garment will contact your doctor and send a text message telling you to take corrective measures.
A cluster of EU research projects (SFIT Group) is supporting this burgeoning field of smart fabrics, interactive textiles and flexible wearable systems. The European project BIOTEX has developed miniaturised biosensors in a textile patch that can analyse body fluids, even a tiny drop of sweat, and provide a much better assessment of someone's wellbeing. The project aims to be of particular use to people working in extreme conditions as well as athletes and people suffering from diabetes.
The BIOTEX project comprises eight partners from four countries and is a Specific Targeted Research Project (STREP) under the EU's Sixth Framework Programme (FP6). It includes two research institutes in the field of micro- and nanotechnology, two small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) active in clothing research and development and production, two universities with leadership in wearable bioengineering, and two companies with expertise in the engineering and manufacturing of textiles for demanding markets.
Jean Luprano, a researcher at the Swiss Centre for Electronics and Microtechnology (CSEM), coordinates the BIOTEX project. 'One of the most obvious applications for smart fabrics is in the medical field,' he says. 'There has been a good deal of progress with physiological measurements, body temperature or electro-cardiograms. But no-one has yet developed biochemical sensing techniques that can take measurements from fluids like sweat and blood. We are developing miniature sensors that can be integrated into a textile patch. The patch is a sensing and processing unit, adaptable to target different body fluids and biochemical species.'
One of the main achievements of the project has been the development of a suite of prototype ionic biosensors, capable of measuring sodium, potassium and chloride in sweat samples. An immunosensor, which could be integrated into wound dressings or bandages, has been created to detect the presence of specific proteins in fluid samples.
Smart fabrics to the rescue
In the first BIOTEX trials, the smart patches will be worn in clothes by people with obesity and diabetes, as well as athletes. Once the technology has been validated, the plan is to take on industrial backers to commercialise it. Meanwhile, a large EU-funded project within the same SFIT group, called PROETEX, is integrating the technology with other micro- and nanosystems for specific applications. These include use by fire fighting and rescue teams.
Although BIOTEX has solved several of the technical aspects of continuous biochemical monitoring, Luprano calls for more research into the application of this technology. 'It's new and healthcare providers are not used to it. We are not used to the information that continuous, remote monitoring can provide so different to the one-off laboratory tests that are usually taken. BIOTEX makes this remote monitoring possible, but more research into the links between these indicators and disease conditions and states will make it realistic. Nevertheless, in the long-term we expect continuous monitoring, made possible with smart textiles, to make a major improvement to the way we approach the treatment of metabolic disorders and leisure.'
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