UK Researchers Create Conductive Thread That Can Be Woven into Clothing to Monitor Key Health Biomarkers
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.
The researchers published their findings in the journal Materials Today titled, “PEDOT:PSS-modified Cotton Conductive Thread for Mass Manufacturing of Textile-Based Electrical Wearable Sensors by Computerized Embroidery.”
“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.”
In addition to Imperial College London, the research was funded by the Saudi Ministry of Education, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), Cytiva Life Sciences, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the US Army.
Other Wearable Biometric Sensors
Dark Daily has covered the development of many wearable health sensors in past ebriefings.
In “UC San Diego Engineers Develop Microneedle Wearable Patch That Measures Glucose, Alcohol, Muscle Fatigue in Real Time,” we covered how “lab-on-the-skin” multi-tasking microneedle sensors like the one developed at the University of California San Diego’s (UCSD) Center for Wearable Sensors to track multiple biomarkers in interstitial fluid were finding their way into chronic disease monitoring and sample collecting for clinical laboratory testing.
In “Fitbit Receives FDA Approval for a Wearable Device App That Detects Atrial Fibrillation,” we reported how personal fitness technology company Fitbit had received 510(k) clearance from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), as well as Conformité Européenne (CE marking) in the European Union, for its Sense smartwatch electrocardiogram app that monitors wearers’ heart rhythms for atrial fibrillation (AFib).
And in “Researchers in Japan Have Developed a ‘Smart’ Diaper Equipped with a Self-powered Biosensor That Can Monitor Blood Glucose Levels in Adults,” we reported how researchers at Tokyo University of Science (TUS) had created a self-powered, glucose-testing diaper that utilizes a biofuel cell to detect the presence of urine and measure its glucose concentration.
Wearable Sensors in Personalized Healthcare
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.