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This smart bandage does the work of a doctor

The next generation of dressings can monitor wounds in real-time.

Kinga Krzeminska/Moment/Getty Images

For thousands of years, bandages have proved an essential component of any first aid kit. They’ve certainly saved countless lives by staunching bleeding and warding off infection. But these dressings can be a double-edged sword: If they’re not properly cared for, they can allow a wound to fester as bacteria builds up beneath its gauzy surface.

But what if a bandage could tell you what’s happening inside a wound in real time? Or even treat an infection? That’s the idea behind a new wireless smart bandage developed by an international group of researchers, according to a new study published in Nature.

Smart bandages don’t just protect a wound — they’re designed to “promote cell migration, proliferation, and even reduce infection,” says Yuanwen Jiang, a chemical engineer at Stanford University and one of the authors of the new research.

This new smart bandage design could allow medical professionals to monitor a wound as it heals in real-time.Jian-Cheng Lai, Bao Research Group @ Stanford University

In the future, scientists hope that their integrated wireless smart bandage will become the standard treatment for chronic wounds in hospitals.

Here’s the background — Smart bandages emerged with the dawn of skin-like flexible electronic technology, which has been in the works since the 1960s but has only taken off in recent years.

Flexible electronics rely on circuits placed on an ultra-thin, bendable material like plastic or foil. Because 3D printers have made such gizmos exponentially easier to produce over the past decade, more engineers are toying with the idea of designing a better bandage.

But why try to improve a classic? For one, some wounds are harder to heal than others. Burns, for instance, are notoriously difficult to treat because they destroy large patches of skin, and new skin often can’t grow fast enough to keep out pathogenic bacteria.

And for people with conditions like diabetes that can weaken the immune system, even a relatively minor wound might take a long time to heal. These chronic injuries affect more than 2 million people in the United States annually and cost the medical system an estimated $25 billion to treat. Such wounds commonly become infected and can even lead to amputations.

For those with chronic wounds, smart bandages offer a promising solution. But so far, the technology hasn’t yet proven highly effective. Jiang and his collaborators hope that their smart bandage design will outstrip many of those limitations.

Old-fashioned bandages may allow bacteria to build up beneath them if not properly cared for, but the next generation of dressings could even treat infections.Thomas Winz/Photodisc/Getty Images

What’s new — In the past, most smart bandages have been designed to do one of two things: gather information about a chronic wound, or help it heal. But when designing their new wireless smart bandage, the researchers thought, “Why not both?”

“We were able to combine both sensors and stimulators in one integrated patch,” Jiang says. The upshot is that, in theory, this design should allow medical professionals to monitor a wound as it heals in real-time, making adjustments to treatment as necessary.

For example, if a patient’s burn wound became infected with gangrene bacteria, the smart bandage could alert doctors right away. What’s more, it could be programmed to release antibiotics or other infection-fighting drugs as needed. The new smart bandage can even detect the presence of certain immune cells and help spur them into action.

While older smart bandage models have also been relatively bulky and tethered to a computer by wires, the researcher’s new smart bandage transmits data wirelessly using a mini flexible circuit board and energy-harvesting antenna. It also doesn’t rely on batteries, making the whole package slimmer and longer lasting.

The Stanford scientists’ smart bandage concept Jian-Cheng Lai, Bao Research Group @ Stanford University

What’s next — So far, the team’s smart bandages have only been tested on mice. “Obviously, this is a lab prototype kind of study,” Jiang says. In order to use them in humans, the researchers will need to make the bandages larger and streamline the production process to meet widespread demand.

Before they finalize the bandage’s design, the team also hopes to add even more data-gathering features, such as pH and chemical sensors that pick up on biomarkers related to inflammation, Jiang says. They also hope to apply machine-learning algorithms to help sort all that data and make more accurate diagnoses.

Overall, bandage technology has come a long way since the days of rough linen wound dressings. And if engineers like Jiang have any say, it still has a long way to go.

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