Cell-Infused Wearable Sensors Aim to Detect Infection and Disease

A new "living material" is designed with live cells that can be genetically programmed to light up in the presence of certain chemicals, bacteria, and possibly even biomarkers for disease.

Kristopher Sturgis

Shown are the cell-infused sensors in glove and bandage form.

A group of engineers and biologists from MIT announced this week the design of a new wearable material infused with live cells that can be genetically programmed to light up and glow when the cells come into contact with certain chemicals. The group believes the wearable sensors could have a wide range of applications from medical diagnostics to contaminant detection.

Learn more about emerging sensor technologies at BIOMEDevice Boston, May 3-4, 2017.

The new "living material" design is essentially a biocompatible sheet of hydrogel injected with live cells that can be fabricated into different wearable forms. The group was first able to form a tough, stretchy bandage that can be worn on a person's skin and light up when pressed against a certain chemical or contaminant. They also were able to fit the sensors around the fingertips of rubber gloves, creating a glove that can alert the presence of bacteria or chemicals as well.

One of the biggest challenges for the group was designing a cell-infused wearable that can maintain a collection of live cells, keeping them viable and functional in a device without escaping the material. The secret to this wearable lies in the highly stretchable, biocompatible hydrogel material comprised of a mix of polymer and water. The hydrogel material creates a sustainable living environment for the cells that can also resist cracking and help contain the cells within the material, even when stretched or pulled.

The idea of a "smart" bandage technology isn't necessarily a new one, as engineers have previously explored new technologies that detect and alert the early presence of infectious bacteria. Last year researchers from Bath University in the United Kingdom developed a color-changing bandage infused with nanocapsules that release a dye when it comes into contact with toxins from bacteria.  The bandage was designed to help address the problem of antibiotic resistance by helping healthcare professionals more accurately detect infection and avoid the unnecessary use of antibiotics.

This new cell-infused wearable sensor could aid in the fight against antibiotic resistance as well, as it could prove to be another useful tool that recognizes the presence of infection. To explore the material's potential, the group decided to fabricate a sheet of the living cells with four narrow channels that each contained a type of bacteria that was specifically engineered to glow green in response to a different chemical compound. The results were extremely promising, as each channel lit up in response to its respective chemical, allowing the group to develop a theoretical model that can help guide others in designing similar living material devices that can respond to different chemicals, bacteria, and contaminants.

As the group moves forward with their research, they hope to expand the model to help create cell-infused wearables in a variety of different forms, from gloves and bandages, to rubber soles and even clothing that can detect signs of infection and disease. With this new design, the model could be used to detect virtually any chemical--giving this material the potential to become a real transformative diagnostic tool. 

Kristopher Sturgis is a freelance contributor to Qmed.

[Image courtesy of MIT]

Filed Under
500 characters remaining