Wearable e-skin that can measure heart rate or blood pressure and printable paper sensors for analysing samples of blood and saliva could revolutionise healthcare industry, researchers believe.
The two devices, presented at the Bio-Sensing Technology Conference in Portugal, could provide patients with a cost-effective way of monitoring various physiological parameters and identifying the most suitable treatment.
"We're on the cusp of an entirely new era - not just for bio-sensing, but for measurements in healthcare and diagnostics generally," said Anthony Turner, Head of the Biosensors & Bioelectronics Centre at Linköping University, Sweden, who developed an instrument the size of a credit card that can analyse blood and saliva samples.
"Until now, we have been used to going to a doctor, who endows us with some wisdom and retains information about us, and then waiting to see if we get better. Modern sensors and telecommunications are rebalancing this power. In the future, patients could have the information, while physicians provide a service."
To use Turner’s device, all the user has to do is to press a button and cover a circle in the bottom right corner of the card with a sample of the bodily fluid. After a short while, results would be displayed either in the form of a digital reading directly on the card or sent to a smartphone.
The whole instrument is printed on the card using a screen-printing technique. It could be used to monitor diabetes, kidney disease and heart disease, or to detect cancer.
"When I started doing electrochemistry 30 years ago, an instrument like this would have been the size of a filing cabinet and would have cost me €10,000," said Professor Turner. "We've now got the technology figured out. We had to combine the area of printed electronics and printed biosensors; it's the first time anyone has printed an entire instrument."
The printable sensors can be manufactured for as little as €5 and the researcher, who is developing the technology in cooperation with Swedish non-profit organisation Acreo, believes the price could be reduced to as little as €0.50.
Apart from patients in the western world, the tool would provide a handy method of diagnostics for doctors operating in poor and developing countries.
Eventually, sensors based on such printable technology could be worn as plasters or contact lenses, constantly monitoring the workings of the body.
Professor Ting Zhang, from Suzhou Institute of Nano-Tech and Nano-Bionics, Chinese Academy of Sciences, presented a new kind of e-skin at the conference based on flexible electronic technology and nanotechnology.
The material, made of carbon nanotubes and sheets of graphene only a few atoms thick, has the unique ability to detect the tiniest changes in pressure, making it a suitable wrist-mounted blood pressure and heart-rate monitor.
"We've shown that the e-skin can be used to monitor many different human physiological signals,” said Professor Zhang. “We believe our new material can give real-time diagnosis of diseases and provide an instant health assessment while a patient is wearing it."