Medical textiles: what’s next?

December 22nd, 2016 / By: / Featured

“Health in hands,” is one of the catch phrases that illustrate a new focus in health care today. Proactive health care by monitoring and managing health issues continues to gain broader acceptance, particularly in developed and developing economies. Textiles of many kinds enhance health care products and contribute to the next phase of improvements.

The “wearables” revolution

Many combinations of approaches involving textiles and other technologies, such as electronics, are leading to agile products and useful technologies, such as “wearables,” that find application in medicine. A recent report by Fjord, an Accenture company and design consultancy, estimates that wearables for health care applications will grow about 600 percent by 2019. These wearable health care products will involve textiles and fibrous structures in some form.

According to San Francisco-based Grand View Research Inc., the medical textiles’ market size, which is currently about $14 billion worldwide, will grow to be about $20.2 billion by 2020, which is sizeable growth. The contribution of wearable e-textiles to the medical sector will further augment medical textiles’ market value. This will provide enormous opportunities for small- and medium-sized companies, and many research and development establishments in the materials science field. It is evident from current developments that the medical textiles sector will benefit from multidisciplinary contributions for developing new products and technologies.

Potential sources for new developments

Medical textiles from a user point of view can be categorized in relatively simple terms: in the patient, on the patient and near the patient. Implantable technologies normally take more time and resources as they are invasive in nature, require extensive regulatory approval and, importantly, stakeholder acceptance.

Immediate growth opportunities lie in developing disruptive and incremental technologies that can be used on the patient and near the patient. Interactive wearable textiles for health monitoring and antimicrobial textiles using sustainable approaches are good examples. The advanced textiles sector can borrow concepts and ideas from broad science and engineering fields to develop next-generation medical textiles and technologies. Interestingly, psychological science could play a role in developing medical technologies that have textiles, such as for flexible in-patient hospital settings.

Multidisciplinary approaches

Biomedical science and bioengineering are catalysts for medical textiles growth. As such, this field involves biology and other physical sciences, as well as engineering disciplines such as mechanical, chemical and electrical engineering. In addition to these disciplines (since any medical technology involves patient care), acceptability and applicability also involves clinical evaluation and adaptation.

Glimpses of new developments

A flexible polymer patch has been shown to improve the conduction of electrical impulses across damaged heart tissue in animals. The patch can be attached to the heart without the need for stitches. Photo: University of New South Wales.
A flexible polymer patch has been shown to improve the conduction of electrical impulses across damaged heart tissue in animals. The patch can be attached to the heart without the need for stitches. Photo: University of New South Wales.

Recent interesting developments in medical textiles involve different disciplines, including information technology to develop interactive and wearable medical textiles. Scientists from London-based Imperial College and Sydney-based University of New South Wales have developed a polymer patch for heart attack victims.

Heart attack results in scarring of heart muscle, which blocks electrical passage of signals needed for pumping of the heart. Biomedical scientists have potentially solved an important problem with this conductive polymer patch, functional in the presence of bodily fluids. The polymer patch consists of chitosan film, conductive polyaniline and phytic acid, needed to make the patch conductive when in the human body. This development is an example of solving an important problem in cardiology using material science.

According to researcher Prof. Molly Stevens, Institute of Biomedical Engineering at Imperial College, London, the patch has the potential to help people who have suffered a heart attack, serving as a scaffold for stem cells to regenerate damaged heart tissue. According to University of New South Wales’ Dr. Damia Mawad, who collaborated with Prof. Stevens, the polymer patch was able to retain its conductivity in the body for more than two weeks. The patch has been tested using rats, and hopefully further study in humans will turn out to be fruitful.

Other new research to note is the development of artificial muscles using commonly available polymer, nylon. Researchers at Cambridge-based Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have turned nylon fibers to give them bending movement like muscles. This means that they could find application as muscle actuators. MIT Professor Ian Hunter and graduate student Seyed Mirvakili have used engineering principles to create artificial muscles by manipulating polymer and mechanical sciences.

The adaptability of medical textile products not only is dependent on its technology and relevance, however. Cost is also important, and these nylon-based artificial muscles are much cheaper than carbon nanotube-based artificial muscles developed previously.

Need and relevance

New research at Duke University School of Medicine by Dr. Deverick Anderson, associate professor of medicine, has shown that germs transfer not only from patients, but also through caregivers and hospital environments. The study suggests that nurses’ gowns transmitted hard-to-treat microbes. The advanced fabrics industry, particularly the nonwoven sector, will find this study useful and relevant as most of nurses’ gowns and surgical drapes are made of nonwoven spunmelt fabrics.

Interacting with the medical community will provide good leads for the advanced textiles industry to develop next-generation hospital clothing. Collaboration with the physical and chemical science community will help to improve the existing nonwoven fabric technologies to tackle problems currently faced by the medical community, as delineated in the Duke study.

Studies are revealing new possibilities for textiles in many areas. An industry/university collaborative study at Lubbock-based Texas Tech University showed that breathable polypropylene nonwoven fabrics, an important need for the hospital market, can be developed.

The use of microwaves for the sterilization of infected garments may be quite useful, as this technology is put to full use in the preservation and sterilization of animal products.

Emerging fields, such as atmospheric pressure plasma, super critical fluid extraction and laser techniques, should be exploited for developing new medical textiles.

The way forward

It is becoming more apparent that multidisciplinary approaches are needed in the textiles industry to develop cost-effective, next-generation medical products; industry collaboration will become a necessity to advance this sector. Project Jacquard is a development by tech giant Google and industry partners to weave touch and gesture interactivity into any textile using standard, industrial looms and a new conductive yarn. It illustrates how the technology and traditional sectors can work together to develop novel fabric technologies that could have wide-ranging applications.

Getting out of one’s comfort zone and interacting with scientific and technology communities outside one’s core competencies will be a path forward for the advanced textiles industry.

Seshadri Ramkumar, Ph.D., FTA (Honorary) is a professor in the Nonwovens & Advanced Materials Laboratory, Texas Tech University.