In recent years, there have been quite a few exciting developments in the field of medicine, which have included such things as medical implants which can deliver drugs, and even tiny medimachines which can navigate the human bloodstream. But as it turns out, flexible skin-mounted electronic patches might also be the way of the future.
Much like a temporary tattoo, these devices will be slapped on a patient’s skin and be able to monitor their vitals and attend to their medical needs remotely, sending information to either a portable computer, server, or even their doctor’s office. Combined with a specialized implant that delivers drugs, we could be looking at a future where truly hands-free medical technology is available.
Such a concept was unveiled a little over a year ago at the University of Illinois, where researchers were working to develop what they called the “smart skin” patch. Paper thin, flexible, and virtually transparent, the device platform includes electronic components, medical diagnostics, communications, and human-machine interfacing on a patch so thin and durable it can be mounted to skin much like a temporary tattoo.
According to John A. Rogers, an engineering professor at Illinois University, his team “threw everything in our bag of tricks onto that platform”, including LEDs, transistors, wireless antennas, sensors, and conductive coils and solar cells, just to demonstrate that it could work. The current design features such as EEG and EMG sensors that track nerves and muscles, something that tends to be limited to a lab given the number of electrodes and wires involved. And the patch itself, mounted on a thin sheet of water-soluble plastic before being laminated to skin with water, can be applied not only like a temporary tattoo, but even on top of a temporary tattoo to help conceal it.
But the real accomplishment here, according to engineering professor Yonghang Huang, whose group was charged with mechanics and materials questions, is the blurring of electronics and biology. “All established forms of electronics are hard, rigid,” he said. “Biology is soft, elastic. It’s two different worlds. This is a way to truly integrate them.” The next step for Rogers and his team is commercialization, which they are already trying to do through his own device company, mc10. The researchers hope to soon add Wi-Fi capability in subsequent models, giving it the ability to communicate with remote servers and computers.
Naturally, the issue of privacy is a concern. If a patient’s medical information is being broadcast by a remote device, will it therefore be obtainable by hackers or third parties who might be interested? And if your medical information is being broadcast directly to a doctor’s office, might this be a potential basis for “Big Brother” bio-monitoring. But like with all medical technology, these devices won’t be available to patients without prior consent, in an attempt to ensure patient rights.
And for people who are suffering from life-threatening or degenerative conditions, it could mean the difference between life and death. Just think of it, terminally-ill patients, seniors or individuals with severe allergies are given this patch. The moment they begin to have a reaction, heart attack, or some other brush with death, EMT’s are notified without the need for calling 911.
But of course, the technology is still in it’s infancy and we can expect any such issues to be debated as it nears completion. In the meantime, it is exciting news just to see how far and fast the field of biotechnology has come in recent years!