Meet ‘PECOTEX,’ a newly-invented cotton thread with up to 10 sensors that is washable. Its developers hope it can help doctors diagnosis disease and enable patients to monitor their health conditions
Wearable biosensors continue to be an exciting area of research and product development. The latest development in wearable biosensors comes from a team of scientists led by Imperial College London. This team created a conductive cotton thread that can be woven onto T-shirts, textiles, and face masks and used to monitor key biosignatures like heart rate, respiratory rate, and ammonia levels.
Clinical laboratory managers and pathologists should also take note that this wearable technology also can be used to diagnose and track diseases and improve the monitoring of sleep, exercise, and stress, according to an Imperial College London news release.
Should this technology make it into daily use, it might be an opportunity for clinical laboratories to collect diagnostic and health-monitoring data to add to the patient’s full record of lab test results. In turn, clinical pathologists could use that data to add value when consulting with referring physicians and their patients.
“Our research opens up exciting possibilities for wearable sensors in everyday clothing,” said Firat Güder, PhD, Principal Investigator and Chief Engineer at Güder Research Group at Imperial College London, in a news release. “By monitoring breathing, heart rate, and gases, they can already be seamlessly integrated, and might even be able to help diagnose and monitor treatments of disease in the future.” (Photo copyright: Wikipedia.)
Ushering in New Generation of Wearable Health Sensors
The researchers dubbed their new sensor thread PECOTEX. It’s a polystyrene sulfonate-modified cotton conductive thread that can incorporate more than 10 sensors into cloth surfaces, costs a mere 15 cents/meter (slightly over 39 inches), and is machine washable.
“PECOTEX is high-performing, strong, and adaptable to different needs,” stated Firat Güder, PhD, Principal Investigator and Chief Engineer at Güder Research Group, Imperial College London, in the press release.
“It’s readily scalable, meaning we can produce large volumes inexpensively using both domestic and industrial computerized embroidery machines,” he added.
The material is less breakable and more conductive than conventional conductive threads, which allows for more layers to be embroidered on top of each other to develop more complex sensors. The embroidered sensors retain the intrinsic values of the cloth items, such as wearability, breathability, and the feel on the skin. PECOTEX is also compatible with computerized embroidery machines used in the textile industry.
The researchers embroidered the sensors into T-shirts to track heart activity, into a face mask to monitor breathing, and into other textiles to monitor gases in the body like ammonia which could help detect issues with liver and kidney function, according to the news release.
“The flexible medium of clothing means our sensors have a wide range of applications,” said Fahad Alshabouna, a PhD candidate at Imperial College’s Department of Bioengineering and lead author of the study in the news release. “They’re also relatively easy to produce which means we could scale up manufacturing and usher in a new generation of wearables in clothing.”
Uses for PECOTEX Outside of Healthcare
The team plans on exploring new applications for PECOTEX, such as energy storage, energy harvesting, and biochemical testing for personalized medicine. They are also seeking partners for commercialization of the product.
“We demonstrated applications in monitoring cardiac activity and breathing, and sensing gases,” Fahad added. “Future potential applications include diagnosing and monitoring disease and treatment, monitoring the body during exercise, sleep, and stress, and use in batteries, heaters, and anti-static clothing.”
Wearable healthcare devices have enormous potential to perform monitoring for diagnostic, therapeutic, and rehabilitation purposes and support precision medicine.
Further studies and clinical trials need to occur before PECOTEX will be ready for mass consumer use. Nevertheless, it could lead to new categories of inexpensive, wearable sensors that can be integrated into everyday clothes to provide data about an individual’s health and wellbeing.
If this technology makes it to clinical use, it could provide an opportunity for clinical laboratories to collect diagnostic data for patient records and help healthcare professionals track their patients’ medical conditions.
As infectious bacteria become even more resistant to antibiotics, chronic disease patients with weakened immune systems are in particular danger
laboratory managers in the United States may find it useful to learn that
exceptionally virulent strains of bacteria are causing increasing numbers of cancer
patient deaths in India. Given the speed with which infectious diseases spread
throughout the world, it’s not surprising that deaths due to similar hospital-acquired
infections (HAIs) are increasing in the US as well.
Recent news reporting indicates that an ever-growing number
of cancer patients in the world’s second most populous nation are struggling to
survive these infections while undergoing chemotherapy and other treatments for
In some ways, this situation is the result of more powerful antibiotics. Today’s modern antibiotics help physicians, pathologists, and clinical laboratories protect patients from infectious disease. However, it’s a tragic fact that those same powerful drugs are making patients with chronic diseases, such as cancer, more susceptible to death from HAIs caused by bacteria that are becoming increasingly resistant to those same antibiotics.
India is a prime example of that devastating dichotomy. Bloomberg
reported that a study conducted by Abdul
Ghafur, MD, an infectious disease physician with Apollo Hospitals in Chennai, India,
et al, concluded that “Almost two-thirds of cancer patients with a
carbapenem-resistant infection are dead within four weeks, vs. a 28-day
mortality rate of 38% in patients whose infections are curable.”
This news should serve as an alert to pathologists, microbiologists,
and clinical laboratory leaders in the US as these same superbugs—which resist
not only antibiotics but other drugs as well—may become more prevalent in this
‘We Don’t Know
What to Do’
The dire challenge facing India’s cancer patients is due to escalating
bloodstream infections associated with carbapenem-resistant
enterobacteriaceae (CRE), a particularly deadly bacteria that has become
resistant to even the most potent carbapenem antibiotics, generally
considered drugs of last resort for dealing with life-threatening infections.
Lately, the problem has only escalated. “We are facing a
difficult scenario—to give chemotherapy and cure the cancer and get a
drug-resistant infection and the patient dying of infections.” Ghafur told Bloomberg.
“We don’t know what to do. The world doesn’t know what to do in this scenario.”
Ghafur added, “However wonderful the developments in the
field of oncology, they are not going to be useful, because we know cancer
patients die of infections.”
The problem in India, Bloomberg reports, is
exacerbated by contaminated food and water. “Germs acquired through ingesting
contaminated food and water become part of the normal gut microbiome, but they can
turn deadly if they escape the bowel and infect the urinary tract, blood, and
other tissues.” And chemotherapy patients, who likely have weakened digestive
tracts, suffer most when the deadly germs reach the urinary tract, blood, and surrounding
“Ten years ago, carbapenem-resistant superbug infections
were rare. Now, infections such as carbapenem-resistant klebsiella bloodstream
infection, urinary infection, pneumonia, and surgical site infections are a
day-to-day problem in our (Indian) hospitals. Even healthy adults in the
community may carry these bacteria in their gut in Indian metropolitan cities;
up to 5% of people carry these superbugs in their intestines,” Ghafur told The
“These patients receive chemotherapy during treatment, which
lead to severe mucositis
of gastrointestinal tract and myelosuppression.
It was hypothesized that the gut colonizer translocate into blood circulation
causing [bloodstream infection],” the AIIMS paper states.
US Cases of C. auris Also Linked to CRE
Deaths in the US involving the fungus Candida auris (C. auris)
have been linked to CRE as well. And, people who were hospitalized outside the
US may be at particular risk.
The CDC reported on
a Maryland resident who was hospitalized in Kenya with a
carbapenemase-producing infection, which was later diagnosed as C. auris. The CDC
describes C. auris as “an emerging drug-resistant yeast of high public concern
… C auris frequently co-occurs with carbapenemase-producing organisms like
Drug-resistant germs are a public health threat that has
grown beyond overuse of antibiotics to an “explosion of resistant fungi,”
reported the New
York Times (NYT).
The NYT article states that “Nearly half of patients
who contract C. auris die within 90 days, according to the CDC. Yet the world’s
experts have not nailed down where it came from in the first place.”
Cases of C. auris in the US are showing up in New York, New
Jersey, and Illinois and is arriving on travelers from many countries,
including India, Pakistan, South Africa, Spain, United Kingdom, and
Since antibiotics are used heavily in agriculture and
farming worldwide, the numbers of antibiotic-resistant infections will likely
increase. Things may get worse, before they get better.
Pathologists, microbiologists, oncologists, and clinical
laboratories involved in caring for patients with antibiotic-resistant
infections will want to fully understand the dangers involved, not just to
patients, but to healthcare workers as well.
Use of synthetic genetics to replicate an infectious disease agent is a scientific accomplishment that many microbiologists and clinical laboratory managers expected would happen
Microbiologists and infectious disease doctors are quite familiar with Escherichia coli (E. coli). The bacterium has caused much human sickness and even death around the globe, and its antibiotic resistant strains are becoming increasingly difficult to eradicate.
Now, scientists in England have created a synthetic “recoded” version of E. coli bacteria that is being used in a positive way—to fight disease. Their discovery is being heralded as an important breakthrough in the quest to custom-alter DNA to create synthetic forms of life that one day could be designed to fight specific infections, create new drugs, or produce tools to diagnose or treat disease.
Scientists worldwide working in the field of synthetic genomics are looking for ways to modify genomes in order to produce new weapons against infection and disease. This research could eventually produce methods for doctors—after diagnosing a patient’s specific strain of bacteria—to then use custom-altered DNA as an effective weapon against that patient’s specific bacterial infection.
This latest milestone is the result of a five-year quest by researchers at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology (MRC-LMB) in Cambridge, England, to create a man-made version of the intestinal bacteria by redesigning its four-million-base-pair genetic code.
The MRC-LMB lab’s success marks the first time a living
organism has been created with a compressed genetic code.
The researchers published their findings in the journal Nature.
“This is a landmark in the emerging field of synthetic
genomics and finally applies the technology to the laboratory’s workhorse
bacterium,” they wrote. “Synthetic genomics offers a new way of life, while at
the same time moving synthetic biology towards a future in which genomes can be
written to design.”
All known forms of life on Earth contain 64 codons—a specific sequence of three consecutive nucleotides that corresponds with a specific amino acid or stop signal during protein synthesis. Jason Chin, PhD, Program Lead at MRC-LMB, said biologists long have questioned why there are 20 amino acids encoded by 64 codons.
“Is there any function to having more than one codon to encode each amino acid?” Chin asked during an interview with the Cambridge Independent. “What would happen if you made an organism that used a reduced set of codons?”
The MRC-LMB research team took an important step toward
answering that question. Their synthetic E. coli strain, dubbed Syn61,
was recoded through “genome-wide substitution of target codons by defined
synonyms.” To do so, researchers mastered a new piece-by-piece technique that
enabled them to recode 18,214 codons to create an organism with a 61-codon
genome that functions without a previously essential transfer RNA.
“Our synthetic genome implements a defined recoding and refactoring scheme–with simple corrections at just seven positions–to replace every known occurrence of two sense codons and a stop codon in the genome,” lead author Julius Fredens, PhD, a post-doctoral research associate at MRC, and colleagues, wrote in their paper.
Joshua Atkinson, PhD, a postdoctoral research associate at Rice University in Houston, labeled the breakthrough a “tour de force” in the field of synthetic genomics. “This achievement sets a new world record in synthetic genomics by yielding a genome that is four times larger than the pioneering synthesis of the one-million-base-pair Mycoplasma mycoides genome,” he stated in Synthetic Biology.
“Synthetic genomics is enabling the simplification of
recoded organisms; the previous study minimized the total number of genes and
this new study simplified the way those genes are encoded.”
Manmade Bacteria That are Immune to Infections
Researchers from the J.
Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland, created the first synthetic
genome in 2010. According to an article in Nature,
the Venter Institute successfully synthesized the Mycoplasma mycoides genome
and used it “reboot” a cell from a different species of bacterium.
The MRC-LMB team’s success may prove more significant.
“This new synthetic E. coli should not be able to decode DNA from any other organism and therefore it should not be possible to infect it with a virus,” the MRC-LMB stated in a news release heralding the lab’s breakthrough. “With E. coli already being an important workhorse of biotechnology and biological research, this study is the first time any commonly used model organism has had its genome designed and fully synthesized and this synthetic version could become an important resource for future development of new types of molecules.”
Because the MRC-LMB team was able to remove transfer RNA and
release factors that decode three codons from the E. coli bacteria,
their achievement may be the springboard to designing manmade bacteria that are
immune to infections or could be turned into new drugs.
“This may enable these codons to be cleanly reassigned and
facilitate the incorporation of multiple non-canonical amino acids. This
greatly expands the scope of using non-canonical amino acids as unique tools
for biological research,” the MRC-LMB news release added.
Though synthetic genomics impact on clinical laboratory diagnostics is yet to be known, medical laboratory leaders should be mindful of the potential for rapid innovation in this field as proof-of-concept laboratory innovations are translated into real-world applications.
UK study shows how LDTs may one day enable physicians to identify patients genetically predisposed to chronic disease and prescribe lifestyle changes before medical treatment becomes necessary
Could genetic predisposition lead to clinical laboratory-developed tests (LDTs) that enable physicians to assess patients’ risk for specific diseases years ahead of onset of symptoms? Could these LDTs inform treatment/lifestyle changes to help reduce the chance of contracting the disease?
A UK study into the genetics of one million people with high blood pressure reveals such tests could one day exist.
They also confirmed 274 loci (gene locations) and replicated 92 loci for the first time.
“This is the most major advance in blood pressure genetics to date. We now know that there are over 1,000 genetic signals which influence our blood pressure. This provides us with many new insights into how our bodies regulate blood pressure and has revealed several new opportunities for future drug development,” said Mark Caulfield, MD,
The researchers believe “this means almost a third of the estimated heritability for blood pressure is now explained,” the news release noted.
Clinical Laboratories May Eventually Get a Genetic Test Panel for Hypertension
Of course, more research is needed. But the study suggests a genetic test panel for hypertension may be in the future for anatomic pathologists and medical laboratories. Physicians might one day be able to determine their patients’ risks for high blood pressure years in advance and advise treatment and lifestyle changes to avert medical problems.
By involving more than one million people, the study also demonstrates how ever-growing pools of data will be used in research to develop new diagnostic assays.
The video above summarizes research led by Queen Mary University of London and Imperial College London, which found over 500 new gene regions that influence people’s blood pressure, in the largest global genetic study of blood pressure to date. Click here to view the video. (Photo and caption copyright: Queen Mary University of London.)
Genetics Influence Blood Pressure More Than Previously Thought
In addition to identifying hundreds of new genetic regions influencing blood pressure, the researchers compared people with the highest genetic risk of high blood pressure to those in the low risk group. Based on this comparison, the researchers determined that all genetic variants were associated with:
“having around a 13 mm Hg higher blood pressure;
“having 3.34 times the odds for increased risk of hypertension; and,
“1.52 times the odds for increased risk of poor cardiovascular outcomes.”
“We identify 535 novel blood pressure loci that not only offer new biological insights into blood pressure regulation, but also highlight shared genetic architecture between blood pressure and lifestyle exposures. Our findings identify new biological pathways for blood pressure regulation with potential for improved cardiovascular disease prevention in the future,” the researchers wrote in Nature Genetics.
Other Findings Link Known Genes and Drugs to Hypertension
The UK researchers also revealed the Apolipoprotein E (ApoE) gene’s relation to hypertension. This gene has been associated with both Alzheimer’s and coronary artery diseases, noted LabRoots. The study also found that Canagliflozin, a drug used in type 2 diabetes treatment, could be repurposed to also address hypertension.
“Identifying genetic signals will increasingly help us to split patients into groups based on their risk of disease,” Paul Elliott, PhD, Professor, Imperial College London Faculty of Medicine, School of Public Health, and co-lead author, stated in the news release. “By identifying those patients who have the greatest underlying risk, we may be able to help them to change lifestyle factors which make them more likely to develop disease, as well as enabling doctors to provide them with targeted treatments earlier.”
Working to Advance Precision Medicine
The study shares new and important information about how genetics may influence blood pressure. By acquiring data from more than one million people, the UK researchers also may be setting a new expectation for research about diagnostic tests that could become part of the test menu at clinical laboratories throughout the world. The work could help physicians and patients understand risk of high blood pressure and how precision medicine and lifestyle changes can possibly work to prevent heart attacks and strokes among people worldwide.
Tuft’s proof-of-concept demonstration study shows how changes in saliva can be employed as biomarkers for development of future diagnostic monitoring devices and applications
For years, pathologists and dentists have recognized that the mouth contains many useful biomarkers for a wide range of health conditions and diseases. Now a study by a research team at Tufts University School of Engineering (Tufts) has demonstrated that a tooth-mounted sensor can reliably measure certain target markers.
In this proof-of-concept study, Tufts researchers developed a tooth-mounted sensor that monitors food consumption as it enters the body. This potentially adds behavioral data to the growing list of exploitable biomarkers available to developers of in vitro diagnostics (IVDs) and wearable medical monitoring devices. For that reason, many clinical laboratory managers and anatomic pathologists will want to track further development of this technology, which uses the mouth as the source of the markers to be measured.
A report detailing the device was first published in the scientific journal Advanced Materials in March of this year.
Sensor Reacts to Biomarkers in Saliva
The 2×2-millimeter flexible sensor consists of three layers and adheres to the tooth like a sticker. It has two gold outer rings surrounding an inner layer of bio-responsive material that is highly sensitive to glucose, salt, and alcohol. The presence of any of these substances alters the electrical properties of the sensor and incites it to transmit radio frequency waves that can be received by mobile devices.
Researchers conducting a proof-of-concept study at Tufts University School of Engineering have developed “a materials‐based strategy to add utility to traditional dielectric sensors by developing a conformal radiofrequency (RF) construct composed of an active layer encapsulated between two reverse‐facing split ring resonators,” their paper published in Advanced Materials notes. The sensor is shown above mounted to a tooth, where it reacts to the presence of certain biomarkers in the saliva, triggering the transmission of an RFID signal. This device has the potential to also measure the same biomarkers used in clinical laboratory tests. (Photo copyright: Smithsonian Magazine/Tufts University School of Engineering.)
There are many possible uses for this tooth-mounted sensor. Individuals with medical conditions such as diabetes, celiac disease, or hypertension, which require them to avoid certain substances in their diet, could benefit from utilizing a device that employs the technology under development at Tufts.
Such a gadget might also help those trying to lose weight. The creators hope to enhance the material, so it has the ability to discern additional nutrients and chemicals.
“If you can evolve the sensor and engineer it to have a database of food consumption, then you could think about nutrition management,” Fiorenzo Omenetto, PhD, Professor, Department of Biomedical Engineering at Tufts and one of the authors of the research told Smithsonian Magazine. “That could be reminding us that we’re indulging too much in sugar or something like that.”
It also could potentially detect physiological or chemical changes taking place in the body by detecting certain bio-markers in the saliva.
“In theory we can modify the bio-responsive layer in these sensors to target other chemicals. We’re really limited only by our creativity,” Omenetto noted in a news release. “We have extended common RFID [radio frequency identification] technology to a sensor package that can dynamically read and transmit information on its environment, whether it is affixed to a tooth, to skin, or any other surface.”
Other Food Intake Devices
There have been previous attempts to develop wearable devices that monitors food intake. However, those gadgets usually required the use of mouth guards and head gear, which are too cumbersome for continuous everyday use. The minute size of the Tufts tooth-mounted device renders it more practical for consumers. And, since it can be mounted anywhere on a tooth—front or back—it can be made undetectable while being worn.
“This study is an interesting proof-of-concept demonstration that small, wireless biosensors can detect changes in saliva due to the presence of compounds such as salt, sugar, and alcohol,” Ben Almquist, PhD, a lecturer in the Department of Bioengineering at Imperial College London, told Smithsonian Magazine.
“For instance, for continuous monitoring of food intake, the sensors will need to be robust enough to withstand abrasion during chewing,” Almquist noted. “In addition, foods are complex mixtures of compounds including salts, sugars and proteins, and the relative amounts of each that enter into saliva will depend on factors such as the nature of the food [i.e., cooked versus fresh], the amount of chewing, and the time in the mouth before swallowing.”
The device currently remains in the prototype stage and more testing will be needed to determine its efficacy and durability. However, the emergence of such wearable devices for medical use suggests valuable opportunities for clinical laboratories.
Because data captured from the tooth-mounted device is transmitted wirelessly, clinical laboratories could potentially store and monitor the data, compare the collected data to other medical laboratory test results for the same patient, then communicate that information to clinicians, other caregivers, and even the patients. This would be a new way for clinical laboratories to provide innovative, value-added services to healthcare professionals and consumers.