The new devices, tailored to care for individuals, can mean massive improvements in disease surveillance and treatment, testing of new drugs and the ability to track personal health.
Portable sensors to monitor everything from step count to heart rate are almost ubiquitous. But in scenarios such as Measuring the onset of weakness in older adults, rapid diagnosis of fatal diseases, testing the effectiveness of new drugs, or tracking the performance of professional athletes requires medical equipment.
Engineers from the University of Arizona have developed a type of laptop they call a “biosymbiotic device” that has several unprecedented benefits. The devices are not only custom 3D-printed and based on body scans of users, but they can operate continuously using a combination of wireless power transfer and compact energy storage. The team, led by Philipp Gutruf, assistant professor of biomedical engineering and Craig M. Berge Faculty Fellow of the College of Engineering, published its findings today in the journal Science Advances.
“There’s nothing like it out there,” said Gutruf, a member of the university’s BIO5 Institute. “We are introducing a whole new concept of tailoring a device directly to a person and using wireless power casting so that the device can operate 24/7 without ever having to recharge.”
Engineers from the University of Arizona have developed a new type of portable device that is 3D-printed to suit the user. The device also works continuously using a combination of wireless power transmission and compact energy storage. Credit: Gutruf Lab / University of Arizona
Adapted fit enables precise monitoring
Current portable sensors face various limitations. Smartwatches must e.g. Charges and they can only collect limited amounts of data due to their location on the wrist. Using 3D scans of a wearer’s body that can be assembled via methods including MRI, CT scans and even carefully combined smartphone images, Gutruf and his team can 3D-print custom equipment wrapped around different body parts. Think of a virtually imperceptible, lightweight, breathable, mesh cuff designed specifically for your bicep, calf or torso. The ability to specialize sensor placement allows researchers to measure physiological parameters they otherwise could not.
“If you want something close to the core body temperature continuously, for example, you want to place the sensor in the armpit. Or, if you want to measure how your bicep deforms during exercise, we can place a sensor in the devices that can achieve this, ”said Tucker Stuart, a doctoral student in biomedical engineering and first author on paper. “Because of the way we manufacture the device and attach it to the body, we can use it to collect data that a traditional, wrist-mounted portable device would not be able to collect.”
Because these biosymbiotic devices are customizable to the user, they are also very sensitive. Gutruf’s team tested the unit’s ability to monitor parameters, including temperature and load, while a person jumped, walked on a treadmill, and used a rowing machine. In the rowing machine test, subjects wore several devices that track training intensity and the way the muscles are deformed with fine details. The devices were accurate enough to detect changes in body temperature caused by going up a single flight of stairs.
Continuous, wireless and effortless
Gutruf and his team are not the first to adapt wearables to track health and body function. However, current wearables do not have the ability to track metrics continuously or with sufficient precision to make medically meaningful conclusions.
Some wearables used by researchers are stains that stick to the skin, but they come off when the skin undergoes its normal degradation process, or sometimes when a subject sweats. Even highly sophisticated wearables used in clinical settings, such as ECG monitors, face these problems. They are also not wireless, which greatly limits mobility. Patients cannot start their normal daily routines if they are tied to bulky external devices.
The biosymbiotic device introduced by Gutruf’s team does not use adhesive, and it receives power from a wireless system with a range of several meters. The device also includes a small energy storage device so that it will function even if the carrier goes out of range of the system, including out of the housing.
“These devices are designed to not require any interaction with the user,” Gutruf said. “It is as simple as putting the device on. Then you forget it and it does its job. ”
Reference: “Biosymbiotic, personal and digitally manufactured wireless devices for indefinite collection of high fidelity biosignals” October 8, 2021, Science advances.
DOI: 10.1126 / sciadv.abj3269
This research was funded by the Flinn Foundation Translational Bioscience Seed Grants Pilot Program. The team has also worked with Tech Launch Arizona, the university’s commercialization arm, to protect intellectual property rights and launch a startup to bring the technology to market.