Thin, soft digital systems that stick onto pores and skin are starting to transform healthcare. Millions of early versions1 of receptors, computers and transmitters woven into versatile movies, patches, tattoos or bandages are being deployed in dozens of studies in neurology applications by itself2; and their amounts quickly growing. Within ten years, many people will wear such receptors all the right time.
The data they collect will be fed into machine-learning algorithms to monitor essential signs, place abnormalities and track treatments. Medical problems will be exposed earlier. Doctors will monitor their patients’ recovery remotely while the patient reaches home, and intervene if their condition deteriorates. Epidemic spikes will begin to be flagged, allowing regulators to mobilize resources, identify susceptible populations and monitor the efficacy and protection of drugs released.
All of this will make healthcare more predictive, safe and efficient. Where are we now? The first generation of biointegrated receptors can track biophysical signals, such as cardiac rhythms, respiration, motion3 and temperature. More complex systems are emerging that can track certain biomarkers (such as glucose) as well as actions such as swallowing and speech.
Small companies are commercializing smooth biosensor systems that measure scientific data continuously. Included in these are Vital Connect in San Jose, California; iRhythm in SAN FRANCISCO BAY AREA, 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 two weeks, and is more effective than intermittent medical center check-ups at detecting irregular rhythms4.
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But it is bulky and temporary, and the info must be downloaded after use, rather than transmitted in real time. More advanced sensors from our labs are undergoing clinical trials in Chicago, Illinois5. Included in these are even smaller sensor networks for heart rate, temperature and respiration. They are able to wirelessly transmit data, and are soft enough to put on the chests of premature babies without damaging their fragile skin6. There is no need for nurses, doctors or parents to disconnect a forest of cables when they want to pick up a baby.
Similar systems might sense pressure and temperature in people who have got limbs amputated, at the user interface between a limb socket and prosthesis. Many challenges must be overcome to make wearable sensors fit for widespread use. Innovations in materials, devices and circuit designs must make soft biosensors smaller even, thinner, lighter and less power-hungry.