Skin sensors transforming healthcare

Sensors that stick onto skin are beginning to transform healthcare, according to a recent article in the journal Nature. Sensors, computers and transmitters woven into flexible films, patches, bandages or tattoos are being deployed in dozens of trials in neurology applications, and the number of these sensors are growing rapidly.

According to the article, the sensors will be key to creating an infrastructure where data is being collected all the time and fed into machine-learning algorithms to monitor vital signs, spot abnormalities, sand track treatments. This will help in revealing medical problems earlier and remotely, enabling medical personnel to intervene quickly if needed.

Sensors soft enough to be used on a premature baby’s skin can monitor vital signs in the neonatal intensive care unit. Image Source: J. Roger, Northwestern Univ.
Sensors soft enough to be used on a premature baby’s skin can monitor vital signs
in the neonatal intensive care unit. Image Source: J. Roger, Northwestern Univ.

The article says that the preemptive monitoring sensors will stop medical epidemics from spreading, enabling authorities to mobilize resources, identify vulnerable populations, and monitor the safety and efficacy of drugs issued.

According to the article, current biointegrated sensors can track biophysical signals, such as cardiac rhythms, breathing, temperature and motion. Future sensors will be able to track other biomarkers, such as glucose, as well as actions such as swallowing and speech.

Small companies are commercializing soft biosensor systems that measure clinical data continuously. These include Vital Connect in San Jose, California; iRhythm in San Francisco, California; MC10 in Lexington, Massachusetts; and Sibel Health in Evanston, Illinois. For example, iRhythm’s single-use Zio patch monitors electrical pulses from the heart for 14 days, and is more effective than intermittent hospital check-ups at detecting abnormal rhythms4. But it is bulky and temporary, and the data must be downloaded after use, rather than transmitted in real time.

More advanced sensors are under development. These include even smaller sensor networks for heart rate, respiration and temperature. They can transmit data wirelessly, and are soft enough to place on the chests of premature babies without damaging their fragile skin. These sensors eliminate the need for medical personnel or parents to disconnect wires when they want to pick up a baby. Similar systems might sense pressure and temperature in people who have had limbs amputated, at the interface between a limb socket and prosthesis.

The article noted the challenges that still must be overcome to make wearable sensors fit for widespread use. This would involve advances in materials, devices and circuit designs that would make soft biosensors even smaller, thinner, lighter and less power-hungry, as well as increasing sensor accuracy, precision, and usability.

Technology aside, the article called for regulations to change to account for the blurring boundaries between devices, data, software and therapeutics. Special attention should be paid to clinical areas of highest need and minimal risk—there are some such within rare diseases, pediatrics, women’s health and gerontology.

In addition, the article reiterated the ongoing concern for data security, particularly for patient information. The US Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act established guidelines for the confidential handling of patient information in 1996. But this was well before the explosion in mobile devices and wearable sensors. New frameworks are needed, giving patients greater data access.