Seated biosensor

Custom-fit 3D-printed sensors could unlock key medical insights

Image credit: Gutruf Lab / University of Arizona

Wearable sensors that are custom 3D-printed, based on a body scan of the wearer, and are powered wirelessly have been developed by University of Arizona engineers.

The team, which calls the 3D-printed sensors “biosymbiotic devices”, envisages that they will ultimately be used for scenarios such as measuring the onset of frailty in older adults; promptly diagnosing deadly diseases; testing the efficacy of new drugs, and tracking the performance of professional athletes.

“There’s nothing like this out there,” said team leader Philipp Gutruf. “We introduce a completely new concept of tailoring a device directly to a person and using wireless power casting to allow the device to operate 24/7 without ever needing to recharge.”

Current wearable sensors face various limitations. Smartwatches, for example, need to be regularly charged and they can only gather limited amounts of data due to their placement on the wrist.

By using 3D scans of a wearer’s body, which can be gathered via methods including MRIs, CT scans and even carefully combined smartphone images, the 3D-printed devices can be custom-fitted to wrap around various body parts.

The ability to specialise sensor placement allows researchers to measure physiological parameters they otherwise couldn’t.

“If you want something close to core body temperature continuously, for example, you’d want to place the sensor in the armpit. Or, if you want to measure the way your bicep deforms during exercise, we can place a sensor in the devices that can accomplish that,” said doctoral student Tucker Stuart.

“Because of the way we fabricate the device and attach it to the body, we’re able to use it to gather data a traditional, wrist-mounted wearable device wouldn’t be able to collect.”

As the biosymbiotic devices are custom fitted to the wearer, they’re also highly sensitive.

The team tested its ability to monitor parameters including temperature and strain while a person jumped, walked on a treadmill and used a rowing machine. In the rowing machine test, subjects wore multiple devices, tracking exercise intensity and the way muscles deformed with fine detail. The devices were accurate enough to detect body temperature changes induced by walking up a single flight of stairs.

The biosymbiotic device uses no adhesive like some competing devices and it receives its power from a wireless system, with a range of several metres. It also includes a small energy storage unit, so that it will function even if the wearer goes out of the system’s range, including out of the house.

“These devices are designed to require no interaction with the wearer,” Gutruf said. “It’s as simple as putting the device on. Then you forget about it and it does its job.”

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