The new technique, currently being developed by Heriot-Watt engineers in Edinburgh, uses tiny electronic sensors that listen to how a wound is healing without disturbing dressings and stifling the healing process.
The project, currently prescribed a two-year timeframe, is being assisted by the Engineering and Physics Sciences Research Council.
The Cost of Wound Care
In the UK, patient wound care costs the public health service—the National Health Service (NHS)—billions of pounds per year. While there are some specialist types of wound dressings available, the typical go-to method for wound care is to remove the bandages, assess the wound's current state, and then re-apply fresh ones.
This wasteful yet necessary practice is required to see how a would is healing in response to treatment.
Dr. Michael Crichton, Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the university, said, “If we can put a sensor on the surface of the tissue, around a wound or across a wound, can we actually measure what’s happening? If we can… [it] will tell us if a wound is likely to be going in one way or another. And if we can measure it over time, then we don’t need to keep [opening up wounds for medical assessments]."
Given that wounds come in all shapes, sizes and types—from surgical incisions to bedsores and burns—the benefits of a 'smart bandage' that can provide feedback on a wound's present state and prevent unnecessary disturbance cannot be overstated.
Reducing the need to remove and replace dressings and bandages will not just save costs and time, though, it mitigates the likelihood of agitating wounds or causing infections, particularly in more vulnerable patients with weaker skin and immune systems.
How Will the Sensors Work?
The Edinburgh-based researchers plan to use a data-based process by developing a microsensor that, when placed on the skin's tissue surface, takes mechanical readings and measurements to indicate how it is changing over time and advise on further treatment or the need for a new dressing.
To make this work, the researchers must understand what defines a healthy wound so that the sensors have a reference point to measure against. They plan to do this by investigating how our skin responds to trauma, such as cuts, by using fat from pigskin. Pigskin is analogous to human tissue and is suitable for testing purposes.
After the pigskin has been cut into measured strips, one has an incision cut into it. The skin is then placed under an imaging device that creates a detailed 3D image of the skin's structure below the surface.
A 3D image of pigskin being studied by Herlot-Watt engineers. Image courtesy of Herlot-Watt University.
To "listen" to the healing of these incisions, Assistant Professor Crichton plans to use microscopic speck-sized sensors to receive and transmit tiny soundwaves that transfer through the tissue. By doing so, the team hope to gauge an idea of the strength of the tissue and how this changes over time in line with the soundwaves.
The Bigger Picture
While the primary focus of this research is on wound care, it is thought that this approach could be used to monitor and treat more serious conditions such as cancer.
“Some tissues and organs have the same structural components as skin, so researchers and practitioners in those areas are likely to take a great interest in our project,” said Chrichton.