Card-sized diagnostics, e-skin are future of wearable medicine

The E-skin's sensors are sensitive enough to measure the health of insects as well as humans.
Credit: SINANO

Apple Watches may be the latest thing in wearables, but you can’t wear one like an artificial skin that monitors the state of your health, or fit in your wallet like a credit card to make it more convenient to track your chronic illness by testing blood and saliva samples whenever you have a spare second.

The two new developments – both of which were announced at a conference on bio-sensing technology in Portugal yesterday – represent the cutting edge of wearable computing and personalized, remotely delivered medical care.

The market for wearable computers devices that will grow from $1.5 billion now to $6 billion per year by 2016, according to IMS Research, will be split between consumer devices like FitBit and Jawbone and mobile-health monitors that will allow patients to leave hospitals earlier to cut skyrocketing healthcare costs, while still being monitored for long-term conditions.

Increasing acceptance of both fitness monitors and smartwatches has helped drive the market so far, but healthcare and medical devices that make up only a small slice of that market will drive much of its growth during the next few years, according to a January, 2015 report from HIS Technology that predicted the total wearable market will top $1 billion by 2019.

The future of medicine, more than a few researchers have predicted, lies in electronics embedded in contact lenses, watchbands, clothing and almost anything else that can like close to the skin and be worn unobtrusively.

Neither of the two new devices are commercial enough to have much of an effect on those numbers any time soon, but could help define a new healthcare model in which support devices can be worn or pocketed rather than rolled around on wheeled stands or gurneys.

The more immediately practical of the two is a credit-card-sized device with its electronics screen-printed on one side, which means the device could be “manufactured” at home.

Users turn it on, put a drop of blood or saliva on a circle at one end of the card and the device provides an analysis to the patient’s cell phone that could be used to let patients instead of doctors monitor the state of their diabetes, heart disease or other chronic diseases, according to an announcement from Elsevier, which put on the conference.

“We’re on the cusp of an entirely new era – not just for bio-sensing, but for measurements in healthcare and diagnostics generally,” according to Anthony Turner, Head of the Biosensors & Bioelectronics Centre at Linköping University, Sweden, who developed the device and was quoted in the announcement.

“When I started doing electrochemistry 30 years ago, an instrument like this would have been the size of a filing cabinet, and would have cost me €10,000,” Turner said. “We’ve now got the technology figured out – we had to combine the area of printed electronics and printed biosensors; it’s the first time anyone has printed an entire instrument.”

The other device makes a credit-card-sized analyzer look clunky, though.

A group of Chinese researchers has developed a new kind of e-skin that uses flexible electronics and nanotechnology embedded in a an ultrathin film made of single-walled carbon nanotubes and graphide oxide that is just a few atoms thick – so it can press close to the skin – but contains all the sensors needed to track and broadcast data in real time on a patient’s blood pressure, pulse and other critical indicators.

“We believe our new material can give real-time diagnosis of diseases and provide an instant health assessment while a patient is wearing it,” according to a statement from lead researcher Ting Zhang, from Suzhou Institute of Nano-Tech and Nano-Bionics, Chinese Academy of Sciences, China

“Electronic skins are ultra-sensitive for detection of super-slight forces with short response times, and excellent stability,” Zhang’s presentation summary reads. “We demonstrated their applications as the wearable devices in monitoring human physiological signals, which proves that the flexible E-skins are suitable for wearable real-time diagnosis of diseases and health assessment.”

“We’re on the cusp of an entirely new era – not just for bio-sensing, but for measurements in healthcare and diagnostics generally,” Turner said. “Until now, we have been used to going to a doctor, who endows us with some wisdom and retains information about us, and then waiting to see if we get better. In the future, patients could have the information, while physicians provide a service.”

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