The majority of research and development in smart materials research and development come from transport. Health and wellbeing have great need of responsive technologies, so why does it command one of the smallest sectors of the market? The length of time and finances involved in bringing a product to market are key factors, as well as the cost in time and money to get FDA approval.
In this overview of medical textiles we look at new developments in textiles and related products, as well as taking a look forward to future directions of research and development in the industry.
Proven in textiles
As demographic trends in developed countries indicate that we are living longer, this has become a key focus of textile development, ranging from medical to well-being functionality.
One example, dating back to the late 1990s, would be the use of infrared light, first introduced by Japanese textile manufacturers for use in blankets for the elderly. Infrared light occurs naturally, just outside the visible light spectrum. Medically, it acts as a vasodilator, regulating body temperature, promoting circulation, increasing oxygen levels within tissue and enhancing cell vitality. As a form of light therapy it is used to treat conditions such as high blood pressure, torn muscles and rheumatoid arthritis.
Now that its potential has been extended and the quality and handle of the finished textile has improved, consumer interest has grown. Nilit and Celliant have both developed fibers aimed at the wellness market using far-infrared energy. The materials promote wellness in elderly users, improve sleep and help athletes’ muscle recovery after a workout or injury.
Nilit’s Innergy fiber uses far infrared rays in a nylon 6.6 fabric with the possibility of adding antibacterial and UV protective finishes. Celliant use active minerals that are finely ground and combined with a resin to form the fiber core that can be used on its own or combined with other natural or manmade fibers. This process ensures that the performance lasts the lifetime of the material and the active ingredients do not diminish with washing.
Advances in production technologies are seeing developments in the capabilities of conductive textiles as well as improvements in their drape, handle and overall aesthetic. These are all important for consumer acceptance, particularly in clothing and bedding applications.
Forster Rohner Textile Innovations use embroidery techniques to create smart textiles that are conductive, with sensors in a network system that provide accurate data readings and comfort for the wearer. The company uses a range of sensors that includes temperature, humidity, pressure, electrostimulation, EEG (electroencephalogram) and ECG (electrocardiogram).
Stretch is a key component of comfort for the wearer, with stretchable heated textiles and elastic sensors that do not impede the flow of data now a commercial possibility.
Advanced textiles—and smart materials in particular—form a significant component in health and wellness products, particularly those designed for the home market rather than hospital care. Wearable technology must be easy to fit and comfortable to wear if they are to be used properly and effectively.
In Germany, BOSANA Medizintechnik GmbH and the Institute of Neuroinformatics have developed the Tipstim glove designed to help patients recover use of the hand following a stroke. The high technology therapy glove uses a pulse generator to stimulate the sensorimotor abilities of the hand. The pulses are transmitted to the fingertips using textile electrodes that are woven into the glove. The nerve pathways carry these electrical impulses directly to the brain areas responsible for the movement of the hand. The direct stimulation of these brain areas allows for a reactivation of areas damaged by the stroke. Clinically tested, it has already received European Medical Device Directive (MDD) approval.
When amputees experience the sensation of still having their missing limb it is referred to as Phantom Limb Syndrome. The patient often feels pain in the limb that is no longer there, which causes particular problems when using prosthesis. Electromagnetic fields (EMF) have been able to help control this peculiar chronic pain, but a special textile was needed in order to be useful for amputees.
Farabloc is a polyamide and metal-fiber fabric with linen-like tactile qualities. It is able to provide protection for sensitive nerve endings at the stump with an extra shielding effect against high EMF. It can be placed around the area of injury, but it is also made into gloves, socks, jackets, and as arm, leg, and body bands and wraps. Farabloc is produced by the Farabloc Development Corp.
Students from Imperial College and the Royal College of Art in London participated in the Rio Tinto Sports Innovation Challenge where they were asked to develop solutions to allow people with disabilities to participate in sports. Working in teams, their task was to think creatively to make a real contribution to Paralympic sports and to the lifestyles of people with disabilities.
Paraplegic athletes can struggle with undiagnosed injuries in the parts of their body with reduced sensation and as a result they may be left untreated. In response to this, one team created “Bruise,” a smart injury detection suit that uses a pressure-sensitive film to indicate the severity of an injury. If an area is excessively stressed during an accident, the film will irreversibly change colour. The colour density indicated varies according to the differing contact pressure levels.
Severe spinal cord injuries can be caused by moving people immediately after an accident has happened. Another team designed a device that offers flexible support for the spine that aims to keep the patient still as soon as possible after the accident to reduce further injury. It uses a combination of pressure sensors and ultraviolet non-toxic resin to transform from a completely flexible to a rigid structure in the first 10 seconds after an accident.
Developed by researchers at the Hohenstein Institute, the world’s first artificial uterus is designed to provide sensory stimulation for babies born prematurely. The intention is to recreate the environment of the mother’s womb providing acoustic stimuli such as the mother’s heartbeat and voice accompanied by a gentle rocking motion. ARTUS, the ARTificial UteruS, received a New Application award at TechTextil in May.
Neonatologists who specialize in treating newborn and premature babies, are currently assessing the effectiveness of ARTUS by observing it in use. Research is being led by Professor Dirk Höfer, working with industry partners that include Beluga-Tauchsport, Global Safety Textiles and M. Zellner.
President Obama’s $500m initiative to invigorate the U.S. textile industry is a welcome step to encouraging innovation and bringing back manufacturing to the country. However, this needs to go beyond strengthening research and increasing IP. For industries such as medical textiles and their end products this is limited, unless the process of getting to market is made more accessible, particularly for small startups.
The European Union and Australia have rigorous medical approval processes in place that protect rather than deter the industry. If America is to make better use of advances in smart materials and wearable technologies for medical applications, the FDA process must be improved. The alternative is that the new financial incentives will be focused elsewhere and government, industry and patients could all lose out.
Marie O’Mahony is Professor at Ontario College of Art + Design University, also curator of Smarter. Faster. Tougher. sportswear exhibition at DX Museum, Toronto.